The fisherfolk of Masinloc and Sta. Cruz, Zambales, have fished Scarborough Shoal for generations. However, over the past several years, Filipino fishing boats have been harassed and prevented from fishing near the fish-rich shoal by the incursion of Chinese fishing and militia boats.
In June 2019, a Chinese militia ship sank a Filipino boat in the West Philippine Sea in an act of aggression that left the Philippines looking weak and powerless. The Chinese Navy has boldly sailed its aircraft carrier and escort ships through the Philippine Sibutu Passage without prior permission, violating Philippine sovereignty. China is exclusively claiming almost all of territory of the South China Sea that includes the West Philippine Sea within its nine-dash line drawn around the edge of the South China Sea.
The Scarborough shoal, the Spratlys and Pag-asa groups of islands and other islands are well within the Philippines 22 kilometre territorial sea and the 370 kilometre exclusive economic zone. In the face of Chinese claims, this right has been upheld by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. In a historic decision the court declared “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the sea areas falling within the ‘nine-dash line’.”
The court said, “Having found that none of the features claimed by China was capable of generating an exclusive economic zone, the Tribunal found that it could—without delimiting a boundary—declare that certain sea areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, because those areas are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”
China does not recognise the international arbitration decision and did not attend the hearings. Instead it continued to build up its military power in several Islands claimed by the Philippines, installing long-range surface to air missiles and building structures and aircraft runways. In a belated response, the Philippines began in 2020 to build up infrastructure on Pagasa Island, one of its biggest inhabited islands in the Spratly Islands.
Despite Chinese objections, after a two year delay, it has built a landing quay and a wharf for small ships to dock and land equipment to pave the existing 1.2-kilometre dirt runway. Pagasa Island is just 26 kilometres northeast of Subi Reef which is now a large Chinese military installation (one of several) on a man-made island inside Philippine territorial waters and armed to the teeth.
The Chinese send their warships through Philippine territorial waters as if they own them. In 2018, 35 Chinese naval ships traversed the country’s waters without prior permission, which is a violation of national sovereignty. The Philippine defense department said that in 2018 as many as 434 Chinese ships traversed Philippines waters without prior notice and in 2019 the number was 389. For sure, the source of this information is from the United States (US) Navy which keeps a close watch on all ship movements in the region.
The US has sent its warships past the islands claimed by the Chinese to establish that they are in international waters and they have the freedom of navigation. They are challenging the naval might of the Chinese navy that cannot thwart them without starting World War III.
The Chinese taunting of the Philippines and probing of the US response is a very serious problem for the Philippines. They are caught in the middle of a global power struggle.
The Chinese claim the area by “power of possession.” It is adverse and illegal possession by international law, which they ignore. The Philippines is powerless to stop them and the US will not intervene. It is as if China is annexing Philippine territory. The Chinese will benefit by drilling for oil and mining minerals in the ocean’s depths and the Philippines will lose their rightful natural resources.
So it is not just the hundreds of tons of fish that the Chinese are taking every day from Philippine waters but soon they will be exploiting the rest of the natural resources. In 2016, the Philippine government put aside these concerns and entered into new relationship of friendship with China and took out huge loans from the Chinese government, creating a debt bondage relationship.
The only check on the powerful Chinese Navy is the United States. It was the ruler of the waves in the Asian region for decades and is still a force to be reckoned with. The United States lost access to its huge military bases in Philippines in 1992.This was due to the eruption of the Mount Pinatubo volcano, diplomatic blunders and a strong social and human rights campaign by non-government organisations. Started and led by Preda Foundation, they campaigned successfully to convert the bases to Filipino civilian use because of the sexual exploitation of women and children in the huge military-driven sex industry.
On 27 May 1999 the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) came into force. This allows the US armed forces access to Philippine airfields and ports. There are three presently at Subic Bay.
However, on 11 February 2020, the Philippine government suddenly announced the termination of the VFA because of the denial of a US visa to a political ally of the president, Rodrigo Duterte, causing consternation in Washington. The termination was due to take effect on 11 August 2020. The Chinese were delighted, always seeking ways to lure allies away from the US and weaken the US military presence in the Asian-Pacific region.
However, Filipinos with millions of relatives in the United States and thousands planning to join them much prefer the pact with the US than a deal with the Chinese Liberation Army.
So on 3 June 2020, foreign secretary, Teodoro Locsin, announced that the Philippine government would extend the VFA at least until the end of the year. This may be to counter the dominating Chinese presence or a negotiating tactic to wring more concessions from the United States. Only time will tell.
Father Shay Cullen