THE SMART answer to the question “How many islands comprise the Philippines?” used to be: “Depends on whether it’s low or high tide.” Not anymore – now the cautious reply is: “Before or after Duterte?”
Filipinos, supposedly among the world’s happiest people, resort to jokes to soften the impact of the uncertain hard times. It helps, arguably, that President Rodrigo Duterte is the highest-ranking joker in the pack.
The then Davao City mayor said during the presidential debates in 2016, when asked about Chinese bullying of Filipino fishermen, that he would ride a jet ski and plant the flag in the Spratlys or the Scarborough shoal. (He was not sure where?)
But Filipino voters, who love entertainment more than enlightenment on the campaign trail, laughed and lapped it up.
Now the joke is on them. It has turned out that the jet ski spiel was just one of several vote-getting promises (including stopping runaway crime and corruption in six months, and reining in prices) that millions swallowed and now want to spit out but cannot.
Continuing the entertainment, the President’ son Baste and a senatorial-wannabe whom Duterte once described as a “bugaw” recently stirred the sea off Casiguran with their jet ski antics as a symbolic show of the flag in undisputed Philippine waters.
In the same program, a sendoff for Filipino scientists tasked to conduct research at the Philippine (Benham) Rise, Duterte again vowed not to allow other states to grab Philippine sovereign rights – except that that problem is on the other (west) side of Luzon.
In his original 2016 jet ski line, Duterte said in reply to a question of one of the fishermen shooed away from Scarborough (Panatag) shoal by the Chinese coast guard:
“I will ask the Navy to bring me to the nearest boundary dyan sa Spratly… Scarborough. Bababa ako, sasakay ako ng jet ski, dala-dala ko yung flag ng Pilipino at pupunta ako doon sa airport nila tapos itanim ko, then I would say, ‘This is ours and do what you want with me.’ Bahala na kayo. I would stake that claim and if they want to, you know – eh matagal ko ng ambisyon yan na maging hero rin ako. Pag pinatay nila ako doon, bahala na kayong umiyak dito sa Pilipinas.”
Meanwhile, however, a confident China has stepped up its setting up of military installations on artificial islands built in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone with Duterte looking the other way.
A count by Reuters has shown that since 2014, China has constructed more than 1,600 structures in the disputed South China Sea, nearly half of them reportedly in Philippine waters.
The more menacing installations include military-grade airstrips, reinforced shelters and anti-ship and surface-to-air missile batteries on Subi, Mischief and Fiery Cross reefs (now beefed-up into islands) near the southern tip of Palawan.
We commented here two weeks ago: “The alarming transformation of the West Philippine Sea into a security flashpoint should jolt President Duterte into abandoning the naïve notion that he can tackle China by his lonesome.”
Has he sought wider and deeper non-partisan consultations on how to confront Chinese encroachment? What has he done about China’s military build up? We noted in our Postscript of May10, “Playing solo, Duterte is sure to lose to China.” https://tinyurl.com/yandsx8h
As we write this, we have only the standing statement of the Department of Foreign Affairs that they have been “monitoring” developments but need not make public their moves regarding China’s aggressive maneuvers. We believe the administration should level with the people.
• Hague: Philippines doesn’t ‘own’ Panatag
OUR NOTES taken after the UNCLOS-based award was handed down on July 12, 2016, by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague showed interesting details:
The Philippines did not win it all. For one, the arbitral court ruled that the rich fishery resources of Panatag shoal off Zambales should be open not only to the Philippines but also to China and other neighbors whose nationals traditionally fish there.
If proximity were the only criterion (it is not), Filipinos should have priority access to Panatag. The shoal is only 120 nautical miles from Zambales and 530 nm from Hainan island, the nearest China landmass in the South China Sea.
In its 15 submissions, the Philippines did not ask the arbitral court to drive out or ban the Chinese, but only to declare illegal under the UNCLOS their harassing and barring Filipinos from Panatag.
Also known as Bajo de Masinloc in Spanish times, Huangyan Dao to the Chinese, and Scarborough to much of the world, Panatag had been a fishing ground to generations of Filipinos until 2012 when the previous administration left them at the mercy of the Chinese coast guard after a standoff.
Although Panatag is within the country’s 200-nm Exclusive Economic Zone, the PCA ruled that the Philippines and China must share its fishery resources between them and with other neighbors. China refuses to honor the award.
Without power to resolve sovereignty disputes, the tribunal was silent in its 479-page award on who owns Panatag. Ownership equates to sovereignty, which involves the exercise of the full power and authority of the state.
The tribunal classified Panatag as “high-tide features” (rocks), which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own. “Rocks” have no EEZ or continental shelf, but they do count for territorial claims, i.e. claims of up to 12 nm of territorial waters.