[OPINION] Flashpoint Ayungin

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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[OPINION] Flashpoint Ayungin
The latest harassment of Philippine troops by China in Ayungin is part of a pattern. In 2013, the Armed Forces had already reported that China eyed to occupy the shoal which lies within the country's EEZ.

Gary Alejano, the Magdalo party-list member in the House of Representatives, has become our eyes and ears in the West Philippine Sea. He has brought us information on China’s aggressive actions otherwise hidden in the bureaucratic folds of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), deliberately kept away from us by the steadfast China-lover, Secretary Alan Cayetano.

It turns out that Alejano, a former Marine officer, has his network of sources – from the military and recently, the DFA – who are authoritative and impeccable. They speak to him, knowing that he has an abiding interest in asserting the country’s sovereign rights in the West Philippine Sea and because the official channels are closed. Except for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who can’t help his candor, no one else in the Duterte Cabinet is publicly taking the cudgels for the Philippines in its uphill diplomatic struggle with China.

These soldiers and diplomats with no names trust that Alejano, from his perch in Congress, will share vital information with the public. What is gratifying is that these sources want us to know that behind the bromance between Presidents Xi and Duterte, the syrupy declarations of love, is the hegemonic reality of China riding roughshod over the Philippines’ maritime zone and rattling its sabers in the South China Sea to show off its military power.

As Admiral Philip Davidson, newly designated head of the US Indo-Pacific Command (formerly Pacific Command), admitted in a testimony before the US Senate in April, “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.”

Davidson premised this on China’s years of dredging to build its military bases beginning December 2013 and which peaked in 2015. “Today, these forward operating bases appear complete,” he concluded. “The only thing lacking are the deployed forces. Once occupied…any forces deployed to the islands would easily overwhelm the military forces of any other South China Sea-claimants.”

Close calls

It was in this context that China harassed the Philippine Navy in a May 11 resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal). In a statement picked up by the media, Alejano gave a detailed description of China’s show of brazen might. This was not denied by the DFA nor the Armed Forces:

       “When the Philippine Navy ship launched a rubber boat to resupply BRP Sierra Madre, a chopper of PLAN [People’s Liberation Army Navy] hovered in a close and dangerous distance. The PLAN chopper was so close that sea water splash entered the rubber boat.”

      “Chinese forces were aboard Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) with number 3368 and PLAN ship with bow number 549. Before, it was only CCG that was challenging and harassing our troops. Now, the CCG was already accompanied by the PLAN.”

     “The Armed Forces of the Philippines has lodged a complaint to the DFA regarding this recent case of harassment by Chinese forces…”

This is not the first time China swooped in on our Navy boats providing supplies and rotating troops in BRP Sierra Madre, the decrepit ship that has valiantly stood guard in Ayunging Shoal which is only 167 kilometers away from Palawan and lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). From Hainan, China’s southernmost province, Ayungin is almost a thousand kilometers away!

China to occupy Ayungin?

In 2013, during the initial phase of the international arbitration case filed by the Philippines against China, China’s Navy and Marine Surveillance vessels, accompanied by fishing boats, patrolled the vicinity of Ayungin, coming as close as possible to the shoal.

The Armed Forces reported that the Chinese fishing vessels were dredging at the shallow part of Ayungin for giant clams “which may be used as a ploy to clear the shoal of rocks and create an access to the detachment.” This report was part of the volumes of documents submitted by the Philippines to the international tribunal to document Chinese transgressions in the country’s EEZ.

From 2013 to 2014, China attempted to block Philippine ships on their way to Ayungin a number of times. More than a dozen journalists witnessed one of these close calls in March 2014. They were aboard a Navy-operated civilian ship that was part of the resupply mission when about an hour away from Ayungin, a Chinese coast guard ship attempted to stop them from proceeding while another tailed them.

The Chinese blew their horns incessantly and radioed the Filipinos, urging them to stop. Amid the gripping tension, the Philippine supply boat deftly maneuvered to shallow waters where the Chinese ships couldn’t sail. It safely docked beside the BRP Sierra Madre to the relief and elation of the soldiers.

‘Incident’, not harassment

Plainly, we see a pattern here. The May 11 harassment of our ship in Ayungin is only the latest – and we can expect more of the same.

But Cayetano is blind to this. He called it an “incident”, no, definitely it is not harassment. Why ever think of it that way? It’s as if he’s saying, “Why make an ocean out of a river?” I wonder how our troops who fall under our giant neighbor’s threat feel about this, they who are in the frontlines of these harrowing geopolitical uncertainties.

While the Chinese presence in the South China Sea is real and menacing, unsettling countries in the region, Cayetano would rather cover this up with his new lexicon of diplomacy. Add these to “incident”:

  • “diplomatic protest” – this could now include verbal reminders, including raised eyebrows, a dagger look, and wearing the wrong shirt color (Cayetano told the DFA staff after a flag-raising ceremony that they need not announce a diplomatic protest because he likened these to actions that take place between a married couple.)
  • achieving “fame”, “being known as the country that fought a big country like China” – this is how he equates the Philippine victory in The Hague. (This was part of his lecture to DFA.) He does not look at it as a leverage to be used as part of the country’s diplomatic arsenal in making China comply with the international arbitral decision, even if in small steps, in parts.

With a foreign secretary like Cayetano, we need the likes of Alejano to keep blowing the whistle. – Rappler.com

The author’s book, “Rock Solid: How the Philippines won its maritime case against China” will be released by the Ateneo University Press in July, in time for the second-year anniversary of the Philippine victory in The Hague.

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.