POSTSCRIPT / June 21, 2024 / Friday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Journalist

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We’ll defend PH seas to the last US marine?

HOY, GISING! We could feel the rage of Filipinos asking on social media why almost a week after China Coast Guard vessels attacked with barbaric fury the resupply mission to our troops at Ayungin shoal, not a peep was heard from our Commander-in-Chief, the President.

China’s Coast Guard launched a “brutal assault” with bladed weapons during a South China Sea clash earlier this week. Video courtesy of ANC.

We were shouting “Hoy, gising!” on socmed to prod reaction or elicit at least a statement from President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on the stepped-up CCG harassment of the rotation and resupply (RoRe) mission to our soldiers on RPS Sierra Madre (LS-75) grounded at the shoal.

Mr. Marcos’ unexplained silence contrasts with his warning on May 31 that if a Filipino were killed defending Ayungin, that could be deemed “an act of war” which could activate the Philippines’ 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with the United States.

Marcos said among other things in a forum at the 21st International Institute for Strategic Studies Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore: “If a Filipino citizen is killed by a willful act, that is I think a very, very close to what we define as an act of war and therefore we will respond accordingly.”

But if the power switches triggering war-like scrambles are made accessible to irresponsible or incompetent hands on both sides of the Pacific, the crisis could deteriorate into a mere duel between the US and whoever attacks its MDT ally.

Armed with practically nothing more steely than their courage and patriotism, the Philippine armed forces will have to lean heavily on Uncle, which leads us to wonder aloud if we would end up fighting the invader to the last US marine.

We were pleading on X (Twitter) “Kinakawawa tayo sa sarili nating karagatan. Huwag matakot lumaban!” and suggesting several counter-actions, although we knew nothing would move lethargic exploited people.

Fortunately nobody was killed Monday at Ayungin, although at least eight Filipino sailors reportedly were injured, with one losing his thumb, during the CCG’s ramming and violent blocking of the RoRe mission.

* *.*

DEFINING TERMS. On the 1951 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty which is dusted off for reference when fresh friction threatens to ignite the combustible air in the South China Sea, the US has issued various clarifications over the years.

The US says its understanding is that the term “attack” refers only to an “armed attack”. So if a CCG vessel rams a PH navy ship without firing a shot, is that not an attack — yet?

But we must always assume that that interpretation would be adjusted or contextualized if a US plane or ship is attacked or fired upon, or if an American serviceman is hurt in a security-related incident, even if no shots are fired.

Suppose an adversary, like that man seen on a CCG vessel last Tuesday, used what looked like a pickax in the Ayungin video, would the incident qualify as an “armed” attack if he killed anyone with the pick?

Does the number of casualties in one skirmish determine if it is to be considered an armed attack that could trigger a common defense under the MDT? Will it make any difference if the casualties are only Filipinos and not Americans?

Marcos has to open his mouth and clarify with Washington (DC, not George) what “armed attack” means, and if there is a difference if any personnel on board, Filipino or American, were killed with a blunt or bladed weapon but not with firearms.

Note also that the Pacific area mentioned in the MDT as the possible theater of warlike conflict has been expanded from the Pacific (lands whose shores are washed by the Pacific Ocean) to now include the South China Sea — and soon possibly swaths of the Indo-Pacific region in the evolving US definition.

The American view is that the retaliatory attack envisioned in mutual defense is not automatic, but subject to US congressional processes — meaning Filipinos have to endure the debates in the US Congress till someone turns off the microphones, or the war is somehow over, or both sides have no more bombs, bullets and ballistic missiles, or debating points.

In sum, the interpretation of provisions in the MDT is likely to be what the US says it is. Considering the pressure that Bongbong, the late dictator’s son, has to undergo in the lopsided power talks, do we expect Mr. Marcos to just nod and agree?

We wonder also if Mr. Marcos shares the widespread opinion that the US will allow itself to be drawn into an MDT battle (not yet a full-blown war, mind you) with, for example, a bullying China, only if an American, especially a uniformed serviceman, is killed.

And if an American military vessel in the Philippine area of responsibility (as the weather bureau calls it) is attacked, on purpose or by mistake, we think it likely that only then will US retaliation be instantaneous, whatever the MDT says or does not say.

* * *

RADIO SILENCE. The outnumbered and smaller Philippine boats that were “kinuyog” (swarmed) by the mob of vessels of the CCG, the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and the Chinese Maritime Militia were damaged and looted as shown in the video clips.

We suggest to the incoming Education Secretary replacing Vice President Sara Duterte at DepEd that the videos of the Ayungin incident, patriotically annotated, be made compulsory viewing now and then in public elementary schools.

On the President’s being quiet on Ayungin, maybe the Palace can try passing that off as tactical “radio silence” (less talk, less mistake a la Sen. Lito Lapid) before anybody starts asking if his ghost-writers have gone on mass leave.

Within the week, thank goodness, several subordinate agencies and officials have pitched in for the tongue-tied President. Samples:

Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., AFP chief of staff, scored China for its latest act of “reckless and aggressive” harassment that targeted the RoRe mission for troops manning the BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin.

Brawner stressed that the CCG has no right or legal authority to interfere with legitimate AFP operations within our EEZ. He said, “This reckless and aggressive behavior has caused bodily harm and constitutes a blatant violation of international maritime law, Philippine sovereignty, and sovereign rights.”

Commodore Jay Tristan Tarriela, PCG spokesman, said, “This is how barbaric the Chinese Coast Guard is… how blatantly they use physical attacks and violence to prevent our soldiers from completing the legitimate and humanitarian resupply mission.

“These provocative, unprofessional, and inhumane actions of China, if left unchecked, are a clear indication that humanity has once again allowed barbarism to trample upon compassion, and that what is right is only defined by might.”

Department of Foreign Affairs denounced the “illegal and aggressive actions of Chinese authorities that resulted in personnel injury and vessel damage.”

In fairness to our soldiers, their bravery and tenacity under fire is legend. But they need better weapons and equipment… and inspiring leadership.

If only we would all do our part in cutting corruption, we can free up more resources for looking after our fighting men and defending what is rightfully ours.

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