POSTSCRIPT / August 10, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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We restored AsPac balance of power!

LOOKING for something positive, we spotted this claim on the front page that the Duterte administration has restored by its deft diplomatic handling the balance of power in the Asia-Pacific region!

The feat was accomplished reportedly by President Duterte’s withdrawal last week of his notice of termination of the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement. By that act, Manila did not only improve relations with Washington but reportedly also restored the AsPac balance of power.

This is not about the equitable distribution of electric power within a grid. It refers to an almost equilibrium achieved when military-political power equalizes among a cluster of nations that must deal with one another.

We are willing to go along with that positive report of the restoration of the Asia-Pacific balance of power, plus the improvement of relations with the US, and to credit Duterte for it. We will just wait to see that talk in the air walking on the ground.

We’re glad to note also that Philippine officials and their American counterparts are now saying the right things at the right time. The corresponding implementing actions are not far behind, we hope.

As part of the calming, balancing effect on the disputes-roiled South China Sea, we hope to see soon the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone rid of uninvited foreign military outposts, or at least the intruder being served notice to end its aggressive presence.

We hope Duterte will find the guts to tell his friend in Beijing that it is time to clear the reefs and protrusions in the West Philippine Sea that it had converted into military forward stations without prior consent.

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THE HAND of Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. was strengthened at the Aug. 2-6 ministers’ meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations by the withdrawal of the VFA notice of termination and the US’s reiterating its commitments under the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

It also helped that the US reaffirmed support of peaceful coexistence in the region, and the UNCLOS-based 2016 award to the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidating the expansive claim of China over much of the South China Sea.

Even before US State Secretary Antony Blinken joined his ASEAN counterparts in virtual sessions, his department reiterated that the “US stands with the international community in defense of freedom of the seas and international law, including UNCLOS.”

Locsin said: “We took notice when the US urged the cessation of actions certain to provoke reactions by maritime militia in the South China Sea and renounced the excessive reach of China’s necessarily municipal Coast Guard Law.”

During the ASEAN session with China’s Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi last Tuesday, Locsin said: “Disputes in (the SCS) should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and in the recent light of the 2016 Arbitral Award.”

Describing the PCA award as the Philippines’ contribution to strengthening the legal order of the seas, Locsin said it must be seen as beneficial to all countries.

“It singles out no one, was carefully crafted to be unusable as a weapon for disputation and is most helpful in clarifying maritime issues.” He said. “Only a bad conscience should feel aggrieved by it.”

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ONE thing President Duterte can do now is to send Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana to lead an inspection of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales to survey the situation there even if only to show concern for that valuable natural resource nearby.

Among the things Lorenzana can check:

* Although per PCA award, Panatag is a traditional fishing ground of generations of Filipinos (along with neighbors), they are being harassed by Chinese forces and thus deprived of their livelihood.

* There are reports that the area has been wired with submarine surveillance equipment. With the improved relations with the US, the secretary can request American experts to help sweep the area.

Lorenzana can bring with him presidential spokesman Harry Roque, if he is not busy campaigning, so he would be able to demonstrate his avowals of wanting to visit the Panatag rocks and lagoon that China had reportedly occupied for good.

Panatag is just 241 km off Zambales and 957 km from Hainan, the nearest Chinese landmass. Even if the Philippines were annexed by China as another province, Panatag would still be administered by the new Philippine province, not by Hainan.

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A HEADS-UP came Thursday, meanwhile, from the Aspen Security Forum in Colorado that the US military will continue to operate in the South China Sea “to ensure prosperity for all nations in the region.”

The assertion came from Admiral John Aquilino, chief of the US Indo-Pacific Command, who noted during a presentation the many concerns in the region centered on the activities of China that, he said, “quite often don’t match up with the words that come out of Beijing.”

The admiral said that a third of liquid natural gas and a quarter of all global trade flow through the SCS, and that nations bordering it rely on it for resources and fishing. Nearly 40 percent of China’s own total trade goes through it.

He said: “We view with concern (China’s) unlawful claim to the entire South China Sea — directly and negatively impacting all of the countries in the region, from their livelihood, whether it be with fishing or access to natural resources.

“Those are the things that lead me to believe that our execution of integrated deterrence has to occur now, and with a sense of urgency.”

He reported that to reduce the tensions there, the US has been “spending  a lot of time with allies and partners to ensure that the international rules-based order is maintained and unlawful claims don’t go without challenge.”

He noted that China unilaterally has renamed 80 geographic features in the area, with a claim that goes with each name. “That’s just counter to what all of the nations in the region would expect, believe, and what they need to maintain their prosperity,” he said.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 10, 2021)

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