PH warned about backlash from China

Paterno Esmaquel II
The Philippines says 'we have to be ready for the consequences' of the historic case against China over the West Philippine Sea

'REJECT CHINA'S INCENTIVES.' Activists dressed as clowns and holding water pistols spray a map illustrating China's claim to the South China Sea during a protest in front of the Chinese consular office in Makati on March 3, 2014. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

MANILA, Philippines – If the carrot doesn’t work, the sticks could follow.

Observers warned about a possible backlash from China once the Philippines files its memorial, or written pleading, in its historic case over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The memorial is due on March 30.

Former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III told Rappler: “China is threatening us not to file. They’ve said behind the scenes: ‘Don’t do it, or else.’”

The former Cabinet member learned this from official channels, which he refused to disclose.

Once a division commander of the Philippine Army, Alunan helped convene the West Philippine Sea Coalition, a group that stands “in dignified defiance of China.” (READ: Filipinos tell China: Bad feng shui to take what isn’t yours)

Like Alunan, a maritime law expert said he expects China to “somehow impose sanctions.”

The Chinese Embassy in Manila didn’t respond when asked for comment about the reported threat.

Alunan’s co-convenor in the West Philippine Sea Coalition, former national security adviser Roilo Golez, earlier said China offered the Philippines a “carrot,” or incentive, to stop it from filing its memorial. Two government insiders confirmed this to Rappler.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry, for its part, denied offering the incentive – the mutual withdrawal of ships from the disputed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.


‘I see that as an act of war’

While he doesn’t know exactly how China will sanction the Philippines, Alunan said “one can speculate based on what they’ve done in the past.”

He cited “economic sanctions” that China imposed in 2012, at the height of the Panatag standoff.

Back then, China advised its citizens not to travel to the Philippines. It also blocked the entry of Philippine bananas supposedly because of crop diseases.

Alunan said China has also been “tightening the noose on Panatag.” China “in effect constricted the area in their favor and shut out our fishermen,” he said in a Rappler interview on February 22.

Two days after he said this, the Armed Forces of the Philippines revealed that China even used a water cannon to drive away Filipino fishermen from Panatag. The Philippines protested the incident, and is considering to include this in its memorial.

“When you shut out the livelihood of poor fishermen,” Alunan said, “that has dire consequences for peace and order.”

He recalled his experience as interior secretary under former president Fidel V. Ramos. At that time, “fishermen who were pushed out of their fishing grounds in Basilan, Zamboanga, Sulu by poachers… turned to a life of piracy.”

“We’re also worried about what the impact would be on our fishermen who, one day, will become very desperate for income and for food,” Alunan said.

“What China is doing to us and to our poor fishermen, to me, I see that as an act of war. That’s basically harming our people,” he said.

Possible sabotage, too

RALLY ORGANIZERS. Former Interior Secretary Rafael Alunan III (in white, near the center) helps in leading a rally against Beijing in July 2013. File photo by Rappler/LeANNE Jazul

An internal security expert, Alunan said another big problem involves China’s “pretty good hold of our vital infrastructure.”

The State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC) owns 40% of the National Grid Corporation of the Philippines (NGCP).

The state-owned SGCC won this franchise in 2008. This happened under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom an international think-tank described as “receptive” toward China, unlike the “provocative” incumbent President Benigno Aquino III.

In the SGCC’s hands, the NGCP “has the crucial task of delivering safe and reliable electricity throughout the archipelago,” according to its official website. And here lies the problem, Alunan said.

“Because they control the distribution of power throughout the grid from Luzon to Mindanao, they also have the capability of sabotaging our economy by shutting off the power,” he explained. “I think the problem of the Aquino administration is how to undo and reduce the risk of sabotage.”

He added: “That will require mobilizing all intelligence agencies of government as well as reviewing government policies as to the privatization of critical infrastructure and the entry of foreign investors in the bidding for vital infrastructure, bearing in mind that national security could be compromised if it falls into the wrong hands, as it has in the case of the grid.”

Not far-fetched

In a Facebook message after the interview, Alunan added the Aquino administration “has the obligation of preparing the nation for potentially difficult years ahead assuming China makes good on its threat to punish the Philippines should it file the memorial by end-March.”

Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, told Rappler he expects that China “will somehow impose sanctions.”

“When you look at it from a broader perspective, they do not want other countries to follow our example. They don’t want other countries to file cases against them, so they cannot just ignore this. We can expect some kind of response,” Batongbacal explained.

China’s response, he said, may be economic in nature. Government data show China, after all, was the Philippines’ 3rd biggest trading partner in 2012 alone.

Party-list group Akbayan, for its part, slammed China for its “carrot-and-stick” approach.

“China’s recent actions betrays their weakness. Their claim over the entire West Philippine Sea is a matter of historical fiction, and they resort to a carrot-and-stick approach to project their imagined strength,” Akbayan Rep Walden Bello said in a statement.

In the face of all these, the Philippines said it will file its memorial on March 30. But how ready is it for China’s sticks?

When asked about this, Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez told Rappler: “Our decision to bring this issue before the arbitral tribunal stems from this government’s principled foreign policy and what it believes is right as regards defending what is ours.”

“And just like in any principled decision we take,” Hernandez said, “we have to be ready for the consequences.” – Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.