Thursday, January 31, 2013

A tale of two reefs

By Perry Diaz

In a matter of days, the Philippine government took strong actions against the two most powerful countries in the world – the United States and the People’s Republic of China.  Now, that’s what I call “wow, wow!” Yep, a double wow, indeed.  But as it turned out, the country was hit with a double whammy! 

The first whammy was China’s seizure of the Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) that is within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).   Last August, after China tricked the Philippines into withdrawing her vessels from the lagoon, China roped off the only entrance into the lagoon; thus, preventing other fishermen from getting in.  Only Chinese fishing boats are allowed to enter the lagoon.  In effect, China has taken de facto possession of a piece of Philippine territory… without firing a shot.  

Bajo de Masinloc, as Scarborough Shoal was named as far back as 1734 during the Spanish era, is 124 miles west of Masinloc, Zambales in the South China Sea.  The shoal is a triangle-shaped chain of reefs with a circumference of 34 miles and an area of 58 square miles.  Many of the reefs are just below water at high tide.  The lagoon contains a large variety of fish and other sea life including endangered species such as sea turtles, sharks, and giant clams. 


Helplessly unable to defend her territory, let alone recover those she already lost, the Philippines had no other recourse but to turn to the United Nations to resolve the territorial dispute.

Last January 22, the Philippines’ Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario formally notified China that the Philippines is bringing the case before the Arbitral Tribunal of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  The issue is China’s claim to about 90% of the entire South China Sea delineated by an imaginary – and arbitrary – “nine-dash line” drawn by China.    

In reaction, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Ma Keqing, reasserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.  However, she said that China supports a negotiated settlement through “peaceful means.”  Well, with several Chinese warships permanently deployed inside the lagoon, “peaceful means” might just be another convenient tool from China’s bag of tricks.   


Last January 28, China’s supreme ruler, Xi Jinping, told the 25 members of the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee Political Bureau (Politburo): “China will stick to the path of peaceful development. No foreign country should expect us to make a deal on our core interests and hope we will swallow the bitter pill that will damage our sovereignty, security and development interests.”  And as before, “core national interest” is not negotiable, peacefully or otherwise. 

As China had demonstrated in the past three decades, her salami-slicing tactics of grabbing other countries’ territories – Paracel Islands, Mischief Reef, Macclesfield Bank, Scarborough Shoal -- have been successful. And now her biggest – and most ambitious – goal is to annex the South China Sea and the East China Sea all the way to the Okinawa Trough as a prolongation of China’s continental shelf.  That would be the fulfillment of China’s dream.

Evidently, China’s “talk and take” approach is paying dividends… until Japan decided to use force -- if necessary -- to counter China’s aggressive attempt to grab the Senkaku islands near Okinawa in the East China Sea. 

Recently, during Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s visit to the U.S., Secretary of State Hillary Clinton issued a “veiled warning” to China not to challenge Japan’s control of the Senkaku islands.  She said that the islands were under Japan’s control and therefore protected under the U.S.-Japan Treaty.  Her remarks instantly ignited a war hysteria in China.  Xi Jinping ordered the People’s Liberation Army to get ready for war, quickly!

Tubbataha Reef

Meanwhile, about 600 south in the Sulu Sea, Tubbataha Reef is getting a lot of attention since an American warship, the minesweeper USS Guardian, ran aground in its vicinity.  The reef consists of two coral atolls five miles apart and each reef has a single small islet protruding from the water.

More than 1,000 species inhabit the reef of which many are considered endangered including manta rays, tortoises, clownfish, lionfish, and sharks.  There are 350 coral species and 500 fish species.  It is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Asia and inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.  It is called the “Crown Jewel of the Coral Triangle.” 

On January 17, 2013, the USS Guardian ran aground on the reef.  An initial visual inspection showed that at least 10 meters of the reef were damaged.  Aerial photographs made by the Philippine military showed the “ship’s bow sitting atop corals in shallow turquoise waters, with the stern floating in the deep blue waters.”  The warship was bound for Puerto Princesa after routine refueling and supply replenishment in Subic Bay.  

Initial reaction from MalacaƱang defended the Guardian’s presence in the protected area. “I confirmed with Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin that there was such a port call request made for Puerto Princesa by USS Guardian,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said.  “There was a request made and the request was granted.”


The following week, U.S. ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas Jr. apologized for the incident.  When the apology was relayed to President Benigno “P-Noy” Aquino III -- who was attending the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland at that time – he told reporters who were covering his trip that an apology was not enough.  He wanted a thorough investigation to ascertain how the USS Guardian ran aground on the reef.

But the United States Navy already made its commitment to do everything it can to repair the damage caused by the minesweeper.  Didn’t he know that?  Yet P-Noy continued to question, “How it could happen when the minesweeper, a U.S. made vessel, was supposed to be possessing of high technology military navigation devices?” He said that the U.S. would have to comply with Philippine laws regarding the incident.  “They violated it, there are penalties. Then they will have to address all of these violations of our pertinent laws,” he said.

But P-Noy didn’t realize that the Tubbataha Protected Area Management Board (TPAMB) had already fined the U.S. Navy for “unauthorized entry.”  However, it did not disclose the amount of the penalty.  Under Philippine law, the maximum penalty for unauthorized entry is of up to a year in prison plus a fine of up to P300,000 ($7,300).  The TPAMB decided not to include the jail option in the penalty.


When a reporter asked P-Noy about the call of some groups to review the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the U.S. and the Philippines in the aftermath of the Tubbataha incident, he toned down and said that the VFA only governs the conduct of visiting American troops when they're in military exercises in the Philippines.  He explained that the VFA has no connection to the Tubbataha incident; it’s a question about violating the country’s ecological laws. 

Meanwhile, Fernando Hicap, the chairman of the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas, called for the filing of a “millennium class suit” against the US Navy for damaging the reef, saying that the US should pay the country a considerable amount following the destruction of the reef.  P-Noy was also criticized by Anakbayan national chairman Vencer Crisostomo and Kabataan Partylist national president Terry Ridon for his statements, which they claimed was tantamount to a “whitewash” on the incident. 

But what is interesting to note is that these leftist groups are quick to attack the U.S. for any “infraction” but are quiet about China’s aggression against the Philippines.  What would they do if one day they wake up to see an armada of Chinese warships in the Sulu Sea on their way to Puerto Princesa?