MANILA — The Philippines will not be stopped from exercising its sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea despite China's attempts to block supply ships from delivering provisions to Filipino troops in Ayungin Shoal, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said Thursday.
“I told the Chinese ambassador (in Manila) that no one can prevent us from doing what we have to do within the West Philippine Sea where we have sovereign rights by international laws,” Lorenzana said in a webinar hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute (ADRi).
He stressed the importance of the quadrilateral security dialogue composed of the United States, Australia, India, and Japan; and the recently formed AUKUS alliance of Australia, the US, and the UK as ways to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region, saying the Philippines “is not alone in countering China’s hegemony.”
He said multilateralism is the “way to go” in addressing non-traditional threats and called on ASEAN member states to take a “more proactive role” in asserting the interests of member states “instead of being passive stakeholder.”
In a pre-recorded video message, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. cited the importance of American presence in the region to maintain a balance of power, saying it is the “only hegemony without imperial intentions.”
“We recognize that the presence of the US in the region is crucial to the balance of power here and the American is the only hegemony without imperial intentions,” Locsin said.
Strategic engagements to expand defense and security partnership with middle powers like South Korea, India, and Indonesia, he added, are also important, and can serve as “counterweights” in power plays that undermine the rules-based international order.
FILIPINOS WANT ASSERTIVENESS IN WPS
According to a survey of the Social Weather Stations last October, as cited by the Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, 82% of respondents agree that the next Philippine government should assert its rights in the West Philippine Sea as stipulated in the 2016 decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.
The 2016 ruling invalidated China's expansive economic claims in the South China Sea, where the West Philippine Sea is located.
Meanwhile, 80% believe that strengthening the military of the capability of the Philippines, especially its Navy and the Coast Guard, is an effective measure that the next leader of the Philippines should do on the West Philippine issue.
Also, 85% say that the next President that will assume power after the 2022 elections should form an alliance with other countries in defending the Philippines’ territorial and economic rights in the West Philippine Sea, while 79% consider it important for Manila to build infrastructures on vacant islands in the disputed waters to assert the country’s rights to these islands.
The United States remains the most trusted country among Filipinos with a 75% score rating, while China remains the least trusted with only 21%.
CHINA’S 'CABBAGE STRATEGY'
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal, meanwhile, urged Filipino security forces to be vigilant against a possible attempt by China to take advantage of the country’s electoral transition to change the status quo that may lead to the loss of Scarborough Shoal or its conversion to an artificial island.
Recalling a similar attempt by Beijing in 2016, Batongbacal said last week’s incident in Ayungin Shoal, wherein Filipino supply ships on the way to the atoll were blocked and water cannoned by Chinese coast guard vessels, demonstrated that “China will not lose an opportunity to change the status quo in its favor by cutting supply lines to the BRP Sierra Madre.
BRP Sierra Madre, a former Philippine Navy ship transferred from the US, was grounded on the Ayungin Shoal after China occupied the Spratly Islands' Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s.
A small Filipino military contingent has been assigned to the rusty ship since.
Batongbacal said the Philippines should coordinate closely with allies and partners “to ensure there are no gaps in our maritime domain awareness.”
He also urged voters to examine closely the presidential candidates’ positions on the West Philippine Sea, saying their “silence or complicity” with the Duterte administration’s “failed China policy” should also be looked at, citing the destruction of the marine environment in the last 6 years caused by China.
“The natural resources and exclusive entitlements that we have of the West Philippine Sea will not survive another six years of official neglect and lack of adequate protection, of indifference, and recklessness,” Batongbacal said.
“We should also look at their own track record vis-a-vis the current administration and check for their own silence or complicity with this failed China policy,” he added.
President Rodrigo Duterte, for the most part of his term, refused to assert the 2016 arbitral ruling.
Calling it “a piece of paper," and warning that the Philippines cannot wage war against China, Duterte put Manila's arbitrary victory aside for friendlier relations with Beijing, which critics say backfired.
Batongbacal said China will continue to use “gray zone operations” and “cabbage strategy” to encircle each Filipino outpost in the West Philippine Sea “with layer upon layer of Chinese influence and control” and establish “de facto control and dominance."
“China intends to continue using gray zone operations to squeeze us out of West Philippine Sea and the Kalayaan Island Group. Gray zone operations are activities undertaken by China meant to achieve specific objectives in this case the acquisition of control and dominance over large areas of the sea while avoiding conditions that enable us to take measures for our defense,” Batongbacal said.
“This falls just short of being lawfully characterized as acts of aggression or use of force contrary to the United Nations charter and international law but effectively enable them to wrest control of land and sea territories.
“Like guerilla warfare, this allows China to take away the West Philippine Sea and the Kalayaan Island Group without firing a single shot,” he said.
Dr. Deo Florence Onda, associate professor and vice president for research of the UP Marine Science Institute, lamented that Filipinos have become “disenfranchised” by the limited access to areas by Philippine scientists because of the presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.
Showing visuals of Chinese ships' presence in the area, Onda said China has been using illegal marine scientific research as a form of civilian activity to assert its claims and show power.
“Because of the presence of this vessel, we cannot access them, and therefore it also limits us in terms of data gathering and thus limits our understanding of the ecosystem in the West Philippine Sea. On several occasions, our planned expeditions have also been postponed or even totally canceled because of the security threat being posed by this paramilitia and Chinese coast guard vessels,” Onda said.
He cited the importance of the recent establishment of a national academic research fleet, network of research stations, and pushed for a network of marine protected areas to sustain productivity and connectivity of the area’s ecosystems.
Showing a satellite image of Ayungin Shoal dated May 6, 2021, Onda pointed out that many environments remain highly productive and biodiverse, citing the high presence of chlorophyll in the area.
Onda said it is a challenge for the next administration to continue to invest in MSR activities not only in the disputed areas and have a long-term research and development plan for the West Philippine Sea, Philippine Rise, and other high seas.
Retired Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio accused China of “doublespeak” for claiming that it does not seek to overturn the international system while “bullying” its smaller neighbors in the Indo-Pacific region.
He cited the Ayungin Shoal incident and China’s recent passage of a law that authorizes its coast guard to use force implement its nine-dash line claim even beyond its territorial sea, exclusive economic zone, and extended continental shelf, violating the UNCLOS prohibition against armed force or threat of force to settle territorial or maritime disputes.
Carpio urged ASEAN to resort to UNCLOS and submit their overlapping maritime claims to compulsory arbitration and invite China to join the arbitration “to settle once and for” the maritime dispute in the South China Sea.
“It will settle finally the maritime boundaries covering both the exclusive economic zones and extended continental shelf boundaries of the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, and China facing the South China Sea. If China does not join the arbitration, it would be the odd man out and it would be isolated,” Carpio said.
"The world will support such arbitration as a peaceful means of settling the dispute as it has supported the arbitration between the Philippines and China."
Once such arbitration is concluded, Carpio said the ASEAN states can enter into a convention on freedom of navigation as guaranteed by UNCLOS and customary international law which can be open to accession by other countries including the US, UK, France, Japan, Australia, India and other coastal states.
“If China does not join this convention, it will be the odd man out and will again be isolated,” he said.
He emphasized that arbitration and convention are peaceful means of settling maritime disputes while nature will settle the territorial dispute involving the islands above water on high tide since sea-level rise will submerge all these islands by the turn of the century.