MALACAÑANG betrayed its dread of displeasing China when, instead of protesting, it thanked Beijing for putting up an alleged Rescue Center on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross) reef, a Spratlys feature claimed by Manila.
As a friend and neighbor, China should have consulted the Philippines before such a major buildup on the disputed reef. Anyway, President Duterte is disposed to allow whatever the Chinese want to do in Philippine maritime areas. But Beijing did not consult or inform Manila beforehand.
This insolent act of occupation and unilateral buildup of a feature in a Manila-claimed area is part of a pattern that Beijing has been using to gradually strengthen its hold on various disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea.
In a craven show of spinelessness, Malacañang even thanked China for putting up the alleged rescue center whose obvious use is, aside from looking after its People’s Liberation Army personnel in the vicinity, to dramatize Chinese physical presence in contested areas.
A diplomatic protest or something as tame as a request for clarification is not likely to come out of the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose chief is busy twitting about local politics and defending the administration instead of focusing on foreign relations.
Even with the Chinese buildup confirmed, Manila need not deliver a speech in an almost empty UN General Assembly hall in New York. A simple but firm diplomatic protest will put on record the objection and displeasure of the Philippine government.
The Kagitingan buildup issue raises again the disturbing question: What hold do China President Xi Jinping and his runners in Manila have on President Duterte?
Duterte appears to be held hostage to Xi’s two-year-old promise of massive development loans and investments worth an estimated $24 billion — but whose delivery is being delayed to keep Duterte on a leash.
Even to plain folk, as followup to the Kagitingan issue, the resolve of the Duterte administration to assert Philippine self-respect and sovereignty can be tested by reversing roles.
It may look childish, but let Duterte and his favorite senatorial bet Bong Go build an equivalent “Malasakit Center” on Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales, which is a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos but taken over by China. Can the President muster the courage to do that?
Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who was with the Philippine panel that won the 2016 arbitration case against Chinese expansion in the WPS, warned that Beijing was asserting sovereignty in building the rescue center in disregard of Philippine rights over Kagitingan.
Carpio said: “We should contest that because that’s under Philippine territory. And if a foreign country will say ‘we will use this as a rescue center’ – which they should not do without our approval because that’s ours – we should protest, otherwise we’ll be waiving our sovereign rights.”
Prof. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, then said China’s move legitimizes the establishment of its military bases in the area.
“China is trying to mask its militarization of the area by highlighting possible civilian benefits/public goods provided by their artificial islands,” Batongbacal told CNN Philippines.
• What’s status of China’s $24-B pledge?
HAVING mastered the psychology of the former Davao City mayor, China President Xi Jinping knew more or less how to handle President Duterte when he came on a state visit in October 2016.
Among the items Xi prepared for the visitor was a lauriat of extravagant promises that included $9 billion in soft loans, a $3-billion credit line with the Bank of China, and $15 billion in foreign investments. Before the guests left, 27 memorandums of agreement were signed for projects in railways, ports, energy and mining worth $11.2 billion.
A recent status report in media have it, however, that most of the promised loans and investments are still promises, except for a priority railway project in Duterte’s base of Mindanao and an irrigation system in Bulacan.
Two years ago, we said in Postscript after that visit: “After attacking the United States to the delight of his hosts in Beijing and probing what China could offer the Philippines, President Duterte wrapped up his four-day state visit carrying home promises of investments ($15 billion) and soft loans ($9 billion).
“But Duterte failed to convince China to allow Filipinos back to their traditional fishing grounds at the Panatag (Scarborough) shoal off Zambales. He got instead another promise from Beijing to talk later about fisheries and such issues over disputed areas of the South China Sea.
“The question of who lost in the bargain is likely to haunt the aspiring power player from Davao now dreaming of forming a China-Russia-Philippines axis against ‘the rest of the world.’
“We were aghast, embarrassed even, that our President bad-mouthed its ally of long standing, the United States, while he was visiting China in search of goodwill and goodies. He did not have to announce his ‘separating’ from the US to please his hosts.
“The 2,330-word joint statement of Duterte and China President Xi Jinping avoided mentioning the arbitration ruling last July 12 in The Hague that struck down as illegal China’s extensive claim over much of the SCS, including several maritime areas of the Philippines.
“China has built what appear to be military facilities on Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Panganiban (Mischief), Zamora (Subi), Kennan (Chigua), Mabini (Johnson South), Burgos (Gaven) and Calderon (Cuarteron) reefs, areas being claimed by the Philippines.”