West Philippine Sea

[OPINION] The Christmas convoy to the West Philippine Sea: A much-needed civil society initiative

Walden Bello

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[OPINION] The Christmas convoy to the West Philippine Sea: A much-needed civil society initiative

Alejandro Edoria/Rappler

With our government behaving like a ping-pong ball, from a pro-US stance under Aquino III to a pro-Beijing posture under Duterte, then back to being pro-US under Marcos Jr., it is left up to civil society to steer an independent course from both superpowers

I would like to declare my solidarity with the Christmas Convoy to the West Philippine Sea that will set off from Palawan on December 9, Saturday. I congratulate the convenors of Atin Ito, Akbayan, and Senator Risa Hontiveros for promoting an important initiative that is meant to convey a strong message to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) that it must respect the rights conferred on the Philippines and other countries bordering the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea by international law, especially the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS), of which Beijing was a signatory. 

‘Normalize’ civilian missions to Ayungin Shoal, groups say

‘Normalize’ civilian missions to Ayungin Shoal, groups say

I commend the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) for its offer to guide the Christmas Convoy in its visits to the different outposts of our country in the West Philippine Sea, beginning with Ayungin Shoal. This is  a welcome departure from from its behavior in April 2022, when its high command threatened fishing boats that were going to bring a delegation I was leading to Scarborough Shoal to assert our rights there. Hopefully, the PCG will keep its promise this time to serve Philippine interests and not behave as it did then – as the first line of defense of the Chinese Coast Guard, on instructions from the Duterte administration, with its policy of appeasing Beijing.

Theft and piracy on the high seas

The so-called “Nine-Dash-Line” declaration that some 90 percent of the South China belongs to China is a brazen violation of international law, as confirmed by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague in 2016. China has already stealthily taken Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef) and forcibly appropriated Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc) from the Philippines. Not only have China’s moves infringed on Philippine sovereignty, they have deprived Filipinos of their right to make their living from fishing in their home waters, forcing many to poverty and misery.

The Christmas Convoy is a much-needed civil society initiative to remind China that it cannot get away with theft and piracy on the high seas.  

This is not to say that China does not have valid strategic concerns in the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea. It is seeking to expand its defense perimeter to counter the threat of an attack on its southeastern and southern coasts – where the country’s main industrial infrastructure lies – from the US Seventh Fleet and the hundreds of US bases on the offshore island chains in the Western Pacific.  China’s fears are understandable, especially in light of Washington’s increasingly aggressive military efforts to “contain” China and the undiluted war talk of commanders like General Mike Minihan, head of the US Air Mobility Command, who recently declared that “My gut tells me we will fight in 2025.”  US warships now regularly drive through the narrow 180-kilometer-wide Taiwan Straits to provoke China, and President Joe Biden has asserted several times that the US will militarily “defend” Taiwan, which the US itself recognizes as belonging to China under its “One China” policy.

The path of demilitarization, common prosperity, and common security

China is, however, going about its response to the US threat in the most wrongheaded way possible: through a unilateral sea and island grab carried out by its Coast Guard. This is self-defeating. The most effective and principled way of countering the US threat is for China to work with its neighbors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to demilitarize the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea. Along with this must be an agreement to collectively share the riches and resources of the area. Such an approach would enable China and its neighbors to chart a path of common security and common prosperity, instead of a course that leads to division, alienation, and conflict that can only benefit the designs of powers external to the region, like the United States.

In fact, taking advantage of the fears provoked by China’s moves, the United States has tightened its noose around China by stampeding the administration of Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to grant it four military bases, in addition to the five that the administration of Aquino III gave it, in order to make the Philippines again fill the role of a platform for projecting power onto the Asian mainland that has always been our country’s main geostrategic value for the US. With a president that has no sense of direction in foreign policy and is only concerned with protecting his family’s $5-10 billion in assets from seizure by the US, Marcos, Jr., has readily acquiesced to Washington’s designs.

From ping-pong to an independent course 

With our government behaving like a ping-pong ball, from a pro-US stance under Aquino III to a pro-Beijing posture under Duterte, then back to being pro-US under Marcos Jr., it is left up to civil society to steer an independent course from both superpowers.  

This is the hope that many of us see in the Christmas Convoy to the West Philippine Sea – that it will begin a process of civil society intervention in determining the foreign policy of this country, to fill the vacuum left by a hapless government that has now outsourced both its foreign and defense policies to the United States.

This is also the reason the US and the Marcos Jr. regime see the Christmas Convoy as a threat and will seek every opportunity to manipulate it to their advantage.  

The organizers of this wonderful initiative are, of course, very aware that, like Ulysses, they have to steer a course between Scylla and Charybdis. Let us wish them a safe passage. – Rappler.com

(Former Congressman Walden Bello was the author of House Resolution 1350, which proposed the renaming of the South China Sea to the West Philippine Sea. He led the first congressional mission to Pag-asa Island in 2011. In April 2022, the visit of a delegation he headed to Scarborough Shoal was prevented from going there by the Philippine Coast Guard.)

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  1. ET

    Good luck with the “Christmas Convoy to the West Philippine Sea.” I agree with Prof. Walden Bello that “… the US and the Marcos Jr. regime see the Christmas Convoy as a threat and will seek every opportunity to manipulate it to their advantage.” Let us wait and see and hope that it will be a merry Christmas for all and not a tragic one.

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