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In defense of Philippine sovereignty

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Recently, Sandy Cay, a sandbar near Pag-Asa Island, a Philippine territory in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratlys, became the center of contention between President Rodrigo Duterte and Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.  


In a statement released to the press, Carpio said Chinese Navy ships and other vessels have encroached in the Sandy Cay’s 12-nautical mile territorial waters. “In short, Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized, to put it mildly, or being invaded, to put it frankly, by China,” he said. 


Carpio was referring to information that Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano disclosed from his sources in the military stating that China has deployed two frigates, one Coast Guard vessel, and two large fishing vessels, with their maritime militia, within three miles of Pag-Asa Island.


Carpio said President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano have the constitutional duty to defend and protect Philippine territory. “The very least that they could do now is to vigorously protest this invasion of Philippine territory by China,” Carpio said. “If both are courageous, they should send a Philippine Navy ship to guard Sandy Cay and if the Chinese Navy ships attack the Philippine Navy vessel, they should invoke the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).”  MDT is a 1951 treaty that binds the two countries to come to the aid of each other if attacked.

“If Sandy Cay becomes Chinese territory, it will reduce by a third or more Pag-asa’s territorial sea, depending on how large a reclaimed area China will create out of Sandy Cay,” Carpio said.  “It will also prevent the Philippines from extending the territorial sea of Pag-asa to include Subi (Zamora) Reef.”  


National security

But National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. – a retired four-star general – defended his boss, saying: “China has not seized sandbars in Pag-Asa Atoll. There should be no alarm on that, as long as they don’t occupy any of the sandbars. There are many Chinese as well as Vietnamese fishing boats in and near Pag-Asa Island.”  That’s very strange because of his military background and key role in the “national security” of the country, he should be the first to come to the defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Instead, he capitulated.

And to add insult to an injury, Foreign Secretary Cayetano defended China’s incursion – nay, invasion – of Sandy Cay.  He reportedly said, “The presence of [Chinese] ships alone does not mean anything. … There [are] reasons for certain presence of certain vessels, but the situation in the area is very stable. There is no situation there that is a cause of lowering mutual trust between all of the claimants at this point in time.”  Which makes one wonder: where did he get his training or experience in foreign affairs and diplomacy?  From what is understood, his appointment as Foreign Secretary was his reward  -- “consuelo de bobo’ – for his blind loyalty to Duterte when he ran and lost as Duterte’s vice presidential running mate in the 2016 elections.  But rewarding him for his unquestioned loyalty is one thing; but putting him in charge of the country’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world is, to put it mildly, irresponsible.


But it was the commander-in-chief himself who surrendered control of Sandy Cay to the Chinese.  “China assured me [Duterte] that they will not build anything there. I called the Ambassador [when I read the news]. He said, ‘We will assure you that we are not building anything there.’ Why would they risk invading a sandbar and get into a quarrel with us? [What will they get out of it?]  But didn’t the Chinese promise that they will not militarize the artificial islands they built around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago – on Philippine territory?  

But the most ridiculous – and downright stupid – reaction came from no less than Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Joel Garcia who said, “As what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs [Cayetano] mentioned earlier, if it does not affect our sovereignty, specifically the areas where we have sovereign rights, I don’t think the Chinese vessels are violating international law.” I can’t believe that the top honcho of the Coast Guard who is in charge of defending the country’s territory has no idea what “sovereignty” and “sovereign rights” mean.   


Silence is deafening


With all this hullabaloo going on, the ultimate guardians of the country’s territory, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (a retired three-star general) and AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Año (a four-star general) are uncharacteristically quiet.  Why the quietude?  Which makes one wonder: are they under a gag order? 


Indeed, their silence is deafening except for the AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, who has the unenviable “PR” job of justifying the unjustifiable.  In response to a reporter’s question at a Malacañang press conference, he said: “We will work to clarify all of these things [at] the bilateral consultative mechanism,” which is the regular dialogue between the Philippines and China, covering various issues, including territorial disputes.  My reaction? Hahaha… 


But I really feel sorry for Padilla, who is paid to do a “snow job.”  But if he does well in defending the indefensible, he just might earn his second star and move up the food chain.  But at whose expense?


Indeed, the military is virtually grounded, with no apparent contingency plan to defend Philippine territory.  With no warships and an air force that consists of a few trainer fighter planes, the country is at the mercy of China.  Duterte admits it and China knows it.  All Duterte can do was curse, “Putang ina! Na-leche na naman tayo ng Tsina!”  [Son of a whore!  China screwed us again!] 


The same is true with the nationalist and leftist groups, who are akin to the “three mystic monkeys” – “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” An example of which was when a U.S. Navy drone, believed to be used for reconnaissance, was recovered in waters off Masbate in central Philippines in January 2013.  It didn’t take too long for Filipino protesters to gather near the U.S. Embassy in Manila to denounce the U.S. government for violating the country’s sovereignty.


In contrast, the Philippine government’s silence on the Chinese invasion of Sandy Cay demonstrates its lack of resolve to protect Philippine territory from foreign invasion.  Duterte’s reason for not confronting Chinese incursion into Philippine territory is that he saw no reason for the Philippines to go to war with China over a disputed sandbar in the West Philippine Sea. 


“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill Filipinos because of a sandbar? China assured me that they would not build anything there,” Duterte said during a press briefing in Malacañang. Well, it’s just a sandbar; however, China can build a militarized artificial island like it did with seven reefs and shoals a few years ago.


But didn’t he realize that Philippine-U.S. MDT covers attack on Philippine warships wherever they may be, including international waters?  It is for this reason that China couldn’t attack or expel the BRP Sierra Madre – an old dilapidated World War II-vintage U.S. LST vessel, which was deliberately grounded at the Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys to serve as the Philippine Marines’ outpost to assert Philippine sovereignty over the region.    


In my article, “What price sovereignty?” (January 20, 2014), I wrote: “Would the Philippines disallow American military presence needed to protect the sovereignty that we hold so dearly? But without U.S. presence, our sovereignty would be exposed to Chinese imperialistic advances. It’s a dilemma that the Philippines has to grapple with. Simply put, the Philippines cannot have it both ways. Sometimes you got to give a little to gain strategic advantage.”


Isn’t it time that we assert sovereignty over what is rightfully ours?


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