Last March 7, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) reported that more than 200 vessels – believed to be manned by Chinese militia personnel – were observed moored in line formation at the Julian Felipe Reef within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and continental shelf. However, the reef, which is also called Whitsun Reef, is within the Spratly islands in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) or South China Sea, which is within the nine-dash line that delineates China’s disputed territorial claim. The reef is about 175 nautical miles from Palawan, clearly within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile EEZ, over which the Philippines “enjoys the exclusive right to exploit or conserve any resources, including fossil oil and natural gas.” An international tribunal had invalidated China’s claim to 90% of the South China Sea in 2016, but China does not recognize the ruling. Taiwan, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines are the other claimants to some parts of the South China Sea.
In 2014, China built seven artificial islands on reefs in the disputed waters, and constructed airfields and harbors on at least three of them. And guess where did the Chinese get the rocks and soil to build the artificial islands? From Mindanao, and the Philippine government didn’t do anything to stop it.
The PCG observed that the Chinese vessels did not show fishing activities. So what were they doing there?
Retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio warned that the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels near Juan Felipe Reef could be a “prelude” to China’s occupying of another island in the WPS. He was particularly worried that China could be using the same strategy in the occupation of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef in 1995.
“I think the President will just allow the DFA [Department of Foreign Affairs] to protest, will allow our military to make noise, but he will not do anything,” Justice Carpio told CNN Philippines. “Because President Duterte doesn’t want to incur the ire of President Xi Jinping, because he loves [him],” he added. He also said that President Duterte considers President Xi Jinping as his best friend. “So how can President Duterte go against his idol?” he asked.
Justice Carpio reportedly said that President Duterte could have called and “berated” China’s ambassador to the country right away, saying that other heads of state do this if there are “encroachments” in their respective territories. “In situations like this, you immediately summon the ambassador of the other country. Here, we don’t do it,” Justice Carpio argued.
Duterte meets Chinese ambassador
Later on, Malacanang said that President Duterte has met with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian, and that the two talked about the matter. The Chinese ambassador said they were fishermen and they’re there only because they were seeking shelter. However, the vessels didn’t look like fishing vessels.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila denied the alleged presence of Chinese maritime vessels in the WPS. In a statement, the embassy said that the area it called Niu’e Jiao is part of China’s Nansha Qundao, also known as Spratly Islands. Surmise it to say; since China claims it as its territory, China feels that it can enter the area freely without asking permission from anyone. China is using its old playbook again; that is, it claims sovereignty each time it intruded into an area.
It’s interesting to note that about the time the Chinese vessels entered Philippine territory, China donated one million doses of vaccines to the Philippines, which makes one wonder: Was the donation made to soften the Philippines’ resistance to the incursion? Hmm…
As the standoff progresses, a US State Department spokesman issued a statement, saying: “The U.S. stands with our ally, the Philippines, regarding concerns about the gathering of PRC maritime militia vessels near Whitsun Reef. We call on Beijing to stop using its maritime militia to intimidate and provoke others, which undermines peace and security.”
But the Chinese Embassy in Manila reacted by criticizing the support of the US in the Philippines’ protest against the Chinese incursion. It said it could affect the “peace an stability” in the disputed territory.
The Philippine government then demanded the immediate withdrawal of the Chinese vessels. It noted that the lingering presence was a “blatant infringement of the Philippines’ sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”
The Philippine military also ordered more navy ships to be deployed to the WPS. This led Philippine Senate President Tito Sotto to say that he is not worried about the presence of the Chinese militia vessels in the WPS because of Manila’s defense treaty with the US, its longtime ally. He said that the 70-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) should be invoked if hostilities escalate between the Philippines and China. He said that if China attacks the Philippines’ navy ships it’s a violation of the MDT, which says that if a Philippine government boat or any property is attacked, “the MDT takes effect right away.”
The lesson of Mischief Reef
In 1991, the Philippine Senate voted to reject the extension of the American bases agreement. The nationalists in the Senate were convinced then that the Philippines didn’t need the protection of the U.S. against foreign invasion. They asserted that continued presence of American bases was an affront to Philippine sovereignty. However, they didn’t demand for the rescission of the MDT, which obligated the U.S. to defend Philippine territory in the event of foreign invasion. It’s like them saying, “We don’t want you around but we expect you to defend us if we are invaded.” Indeed, it’s a love-hate relationship that is nurtured to this day.
The following year, the US bases were closed when the termination took effect. Three years later, on February 8, 1995, Filipino fishermen observed a Chinese flag flying over the Mischief Reef, which is only 135 miles from Palawan. Eight Chinese ships were also in the area and some were armed. And the Philippine Armed Forces couldn’t do anything to take it back.
As an afterthought to the Senate’s folly of booting out the Americans from Philippine soil, which left the Philippines at the mercy of a foreign country who’d use force to nibble at its territory, the U.S. and the Philippines signed a Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which would allow the stationing of American forces on Philippine soil. The Senate ratified it on May 27, 1999, which makes one wonder how the senators — who voted to remove the U.S. bases in 1991 — voted for the VFA eight years later? Once again the nationalists went up in arms claiming that the VFA violates the Philippine constitution. But the VFA remained in force simply because the Philippine senators realized that they made a major blunder in terminating the bases agreement.
When the Chinese occupied Mischief Reef in February1995, they built makeshift structures on stilts that they used as fishermen’s shelter. The Philippine government protested the incursion but the Chinese said that they’re using them to shelter all fishermen at night including Filipinos who might need it. In 1998, the makeshift structures were replaced with permanent buildings. Years later, a military garrison was built and troops were stationed there. Twenty years later, China built an artificial island on it and built a huge air and naval base. The Chinese call it their “Pearl Harbor” in the South China Sea. Justice Carpio said that he’s worried that “they will now start claiming, building on Juan Felipe Reef, just like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995.”
The Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef serves as a lesson to President Duterte. Today, he is faced with a dilemma: What would he do if China refuses to withdraw its 200 vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef and starts building fishermen’s shelter just like it did 26 years ago on Mischief Reef?
It seems like it’s déjà vu all over again.