Impunity in the South China Sea


With the government either defending, justifying or simply doing nothing about China’s aggressive actions, the country’s giant neighbor has become even bolder to pursue its “creeping invasion” of the disputed territories in the South China Sea.

After occupying, reclaiming and building virtual military bases with airstrips, radar equipment and other installations on several disputed islands in the last few years, the Chinese recently built an alleged maritime rescue center on the Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), which is part of the Kalayaan Island Group that the Philippines rightfully claims sovereignty over. Instead of lodging a protest, Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo ironically says we should be thankful for the Chinese facility because it would help Filipino fishermen in distress.

Recently, US Indo-Pacific Fleet commander Admiral Philip Davidson reported that the China Coast Guard continues to harass and intimidate Filipino fishermen in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal).

Based on this and the complaints of Filipino fishermen, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales filed a complaint with the International Criminal Court against Chinese President Xi Jin-ping for “crimes against humanity” for the alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen.

But President Rodrigo Duterte and Presidential Spokesman Salvador ignored the complaint, saying ICC had no jurisdiction and it was a futile exercise, and reassuring their Chinese friends that relations with China would continue to be warm despite the complaint.

And just last week, the country’s Western Command reported that a flotilla of Chinese vessels, described in news reports as Chinese militia, has been swarming around Pag-asa Island, which is very close to Palawan and is, in fact, officially considered part of the province’s Kalayaan town and home to a small Philippine military contingent and to about 100 Filipino residents, mostly fishermen.

On the previous Chinese transgressions in the disputed islands, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano claimed the DFA had filed “dozens, 50 or even 100 protests” with China, but never released a single copy of the supposed protests. How can Cayetano produce a copy when it was obvious he was lying and couldn’t even remember if dozens or 100 protests had been filed?

On the latest report that hundreds of Chinese vessels are swarmed around Pag-asa Island, Foreign Affairs Secretary Toedoro Locsin also claimed to have filed a “salvo of diplomatic notes” with the Chinese government, but when pressed to present a copy, Locsin, who has taken on his boss’ penchant for “colorful” language, merely said: “You have my word for it, and that is all you get. Manigas na kayo na nagda-doubt pa!” (Drop dead, you doubters.)

Panelo later thumbed down the request to make the protest public and urged the people to just “take the word of the public officials,” which unfortunately is not easy to do considering the track record of this administration on transparency.

Take for example the case of the “Operation Tokhang” reports. The Philippine National Police and the Office of the Solicitor General Jose Calida has been asked to present the official reports on the illegal drug operations for a long time now. Calida first promised to present the report to the Supreme Court but reneged on the offer citing national security.

The high tribunal had to order Calida and PNP last Tuesday to submit to the court the police reports on the killings of more than 4,000 people in Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

But back to China. Before Locsin claimed that he had sent a “salvo of diplomatic notes” to China, Panelo said the government would “ask politely” why the Chinese vessels were in the area of Pag-asa Island. On the same breath, he downplayed the presence of the Chinese militia, first claiming that there were only 275 ships and not 600 as claimed by the military, and then saying that the Chinese were perhaps merely watching the area.

But based on how the Chinese slowly, but gradually took over the disputed islets in the South China Sea, it is not farfetched to suspect that the Chinese are eyeing the island, which is not just an islet or reef, but a big and inhabitable island.

Their presence seems to send a clear signal to the Philippine military, which is in the process of repairing military installations there, to back off.