Time to make a stand

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

The Duterte administration’s policy of appeasement did not deter China’s military buildup in the South China Sea, including parts of the West Philippine Sea. The administration’s failure to take up the Philippines’ victory in the arbitral court against China’s nine-dash-line claims has allowed China to continue its belligerence and militarization.

In a report, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) said China has begun or completed over 70 acres of new construction and facility improvement in its bases in the South China Sea since the start of 2017.

Last week, China’s People’s Daily announced the conduct of takeoff and landing exercises of its bombers on Woody Island in the Paracels.

The AMTI said nearly the entire Philippines falls within the radius of the bombers, including Manila and all five Philippine military bases earmarked for development under the US-PH Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.

Vietnam demanded that China cease militarization activities and strictly respect its sovereignty over the Hoang Sa Islands or Paracels.

Mahathir Mohamad, the new Malaysian prime minister, raised concerns over China’s military activities, and sought to “ensure our voice is heard because Malaysia does have islands in the area, and this must be upheld.” In an interview with the Financial Times, he described China’s new leadership as “more ambitious” in its willingness to “flex their muscles a bit, and that is very worrisome.”

The Philippines, on the other hand, expressed concern about the missiles installed in South China Sea islands, but said it did not see any immediate threat to its maritime security from China’s deployment of long-range bombers.

It is unthinkable that our government seems to have given up the fight so easily and agrees with all the concessions promised by the expansionist power. The administration’s response to Chinese militarization gives the impression that we are at a losing end.

A mere strict enforcement of the arbitral ruling from The Hague is a more than sufficient weapon for our government to take a firm stand against China’s actions in the South China Sea. Our government’s appreciation of the Philippines’ victory against China’s unfounded nine-dash claim can be a good starting point.

We cannot afford to be silent on “clear and present threats” to the islands that are clearly within our exclusive economic zone, as affirmed by the arbitral court. We have the responsibility to defend what is legally ours. All the resources in the West Philippine Sea belong exclusively to the Philippines. There is no legal dispute as to the ownership of the oil, fish and gas resources.

We cannot be so engrossed with the short-term gains that we surrender our national interest and sovereignty along the way.

There are alternative options to explore. We need to exhaust all available multilateral mechanisms, like the Asean and traditional allies. We should negotiate from a position of strength, not weakness.

We should actively engage the world powers—like the United States, Japan, India and Australia—to oppose the island-building in and militarization of the South China Sea, and pursue continued peace and prosperity. Such cooperation could be extended to like-minded democracies that uphold the same idea of a rules-based order and interest in maintaining the status quo.

Former Philippine ambassador Albert del Rosario is right in saying that we lost opportunities to advance our position when the government decided to shelve the arbitral ruling. Instead of maximizing our gains, he said, “we also found ourselves being thrown into reverse gear, thus allowing ourselves to be fully disadvantaged.”

But it is not too late. When he urged Filipinos to speak with one voice in promoting our national security, he meant everyone regardless of economic class or political affiliation.

Our traditional partners and friends in the international community are waiting to hear the Filipinos’ united voice. We need to take a stand to call on the President to revisit our foreign policy to enable us to defend our sovereignty in the face of China’s militarization.

With a united stand as a nation, we can rally the international community to take more responsibility in preserving peace and the freedoms of navigation and flight. The Philippines should not shelve its claim of sovereignty and must continue to promote a rules-based regime. It might want to take advantage of the Shangri-La Dialogue to be held on June 1-3 in Singapore. With leaders of over 50 countries expected to attend, the Philippines can take the opportunity to rally other countries against China’s actions in the South China Sea.

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