After all the seemingly positive developments that have happened – such as President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China last October which resulted in $24 billion worth of loans and investment pledges – the tension over Panatag Shoal (or Scarborough Shoal) continues to escalate.
Intelligence sources confirmed that China is laying the groundwork to build a structure – ostensibly a “monitoring station” – according to the mayor of Sansha City (the name Beijing gave to its administrative base for the disputed areas). China’s construction of artificial islands in the disputed areas in the Spratlys and the continuing work at North Island in the Paracels has already drawn deep concern. Intelligence officials say China is almost done with structures that look like surface-to-air missile batteries that could further militarize the region, despite Chinese claims that the man-made islands are primarily for civilian purposes.
This plan to build in Panatag Shoal is clearly a violation of a Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling that said China has no legal basis to claim historic rights over disputed territories in the South China Sea. To this day, China has refused to recognize the PCA ruling. According to military sources, any reclamation activity on Panatag would be tantamount to “crossing the red line” because it falls under the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
And while it may take a while before any structure can be built in Panatag Shoal, everyone knows that it plays a very significant role in China’s “strategic triangle” with the Spratlys and the Paracel Islands since it would give China greater capability to establish an Air Defense Identification Zone over the entire South China Sea. Additionally, Panatag is practically close to home due to its proximity to the Philippine Air Force’s Basa Air Base in Pampanga which is just 40 miles northwest of Metro Manila.
And now, there is this issue over Chinese vessels spotted surveying the area at Benham Rise – a 13-million hectare maritime territory that is part of the Philippines’ extended continental shelf. Although Benham Rise is not part of our national territory, the Philippines is the only country that has exclusive right to explore and develop the natural resources in the area such as oil, gas and minerals. Other nations though may conduct surveys on the fisheries and water column, but not on those natural resources.
Certainly, the president’s openness regarding our relationship with China is a welcome gesture and may be good in terms of economic trade, but the situation requires a delicate balancing act. Let’s not go overboard and sell our soul. A pragmatic approach is also warranted, like Australia that does not want to escalate tensions with Beijing and has decided against conducting patrols over disputed maritime territories. Vietnam, another country embroiled in maritime disputes with China, is also seeking diplomatic avenues to resolve disputes as seen in the visit of Vietnamese Communist Party Secretary General Nguyen Phu Trong to Beijing last January.
During the visit of Chinese vice premier Wang Yang to Davao City, additional trade and investment deals were made between our two countries, with the president noting the need to “focus on common interests that bring more benefits than differences,” and reaffirming the importance of peaceful settlements of disputes.
Most geo-political experts agree that we must also be firm in our stance regarding our sovereign rights, and must not lose sight of the long-term implications of our actions regarding such important issues as Panatag Shoal and Benham Rise. Let’s face it – this part of the world is really getting to be more worrisome in light of the latest developments, such as North Korea’s continuing belligerence with its nuclear missile program, and China’s continued intention to engage in “excursionary” activities, not to mention its “edifice complex” in the disputed maritime territories in the South China Sea.
Just how delicate the situation is can be gleaned from the visit last month of US Defense Secretary James Mattis to Japan where he reaffirmed support for the latter’s claim on Senkaku Islands, and to South Korea where he reiterated US commitment to the previously agreed upon security deals. Mattis’ visit also paved the way for the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system in South Korea to counter North Korea’s growing nuclear ambitions – much to the ire of China which is the closest ally of North Korea.
Mattis’ visit was followed by the visit this week of US State Secretary Rex Tillerson also to Japan, South Korea and to China where he just arrived for a two-day visit even as we write this column. Tillerson’s Asia swing is seen by many as a tacit signal that the US takes the situation in Asia and of course, the South China Sea seriously – and that it is prepared to take action and recover “lost ground” from past mistakes.
This is certainly clear in the decision of US President Donald Trump to increase military spending by as much as 10 percent to boost its fleet of warships. China for its part seems to be approaching the US with restraint and is open to a dialogue as seen in the scheduled visit of Xi Jinping to Trump’s Florida home next month.
Certainly, everyone must seek to ease tensions in the region, but developments like China’s plan on Panatag Shoal must not be easily dismissed. In January last year, the CIA together with CSIS warned that South China Sea could virtually become “a Chinese lake” by 2030 if the US and allies/partners across the world do not build up their capability to respond to rising security threats in the region.
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