Sunday, February 3, 2013

Misguided Filipino patriotism and the new American thrust in the Pacific

Last week, I happened by chance to read two articles on the Internet written by two Filipinos about the Tubbataha Reef incident involving a wayward US navy ship and the claim of the Philippine government for ownership of certain islands and rocks in the South China Sea, namely the Spratlys and the Scarborough Shoal.
What prompted me to read the said articles was the faint hope that I would be reading something interesting, intelligent and informative, perhaps, a new insight on the ongoing South China Sea dispute between China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan, Malaysia and Brunei. This nearly-half-a-century dispute had caught my interest way back when I was enrolled in a course in international law in Toronto.

On January 17, 2013, the USS Guardian ran aground on Tubataha Reefs in the
Sulu Sea, causing significant damage to the marine environment.
One article was written by Perry Diaz, a Filipino-American based in the US while the other by Ducky Paredes, a Filipino columnist of Malaya, a Manila-based newspaper, and both articles appeared in the former’s Global BALITA website. To my dismay, I found both writers without any clue about the legal arguments in the dispute, both being non-lawyers and who were simply expressing their opinions out of raw emotions of love of country and headstrong notion of nationalism. Not that there’s anything wrong in expressing their individual points of view, but the aforementioned articles smack of pretence of knowing what the complex legal issues are.
What is being disputed in the South China Sea is not necessarily law of the sea issues as many have been led to believe, thus, the public misconception that all that matters here is where a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) lies, or what essentially covers the length and breadth of the continental shelf. Or which country is closest in distance to the disputed territories, the nearest having the most logical putative claim.
The South China Sea. Map courtesy of wikipedia. Click link to view "Standoff at
Scarborough Shoal" by AlJazeera,
The 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) is by itself a very complicated legal document that codifies maritime jurisdictional principles which member countries must adhere to. But international legal experts are in unanimous agreement that UNCLOS does not confer a legal title of sovereignty over territories in the oceans. The issue of sovereignty is to be determined by international case law, past decisions, and precedents.
I am not going to regurgitate my personal views on the South China Sea dispute for I have already expressed them in previous blogs. My only concern is the impudent tendency for others like Messrs. Diaz and Paredes to lose objectivity in their arguments and let their emotions rule instead of reason, and for them to invent a version of the facts that is farthest from the truth.
In the first article, “A Tale of Two Reefs,” Perry Diaz peddles the falsehood that the Philippine government decided to bring the dispute to UN arbitration because it is unable to defend its territories and recover those already lost to China’s aggressive de facto occupation. If you believe Mr. Diaz, you would imagine Chinese troops having landed on Philippine soil, raised the Chinese flag, and occupied and exercised control over some of its territories. Everyone knows this is not true, yet if you tell Mr. Diaz that what he’s saying is inaccurate, he will call you a traitor (a Makapili, to use his words) and pro-Chinese. Exactly what he told me when I sent my comments to his article, even suggesting that I look foolish because of my arguments, which perhaps was only the first time he has ever heard of contrary opinions to his writings on the web. Mr. Diaz has the temerity to even suggest that perhaps I didn’t know where the Spratly archipelago is, in addition to belittling my knowledge of the facts and the law about the ongoing dispute.
When it comes to the USS Guardian, an errant minesweeper that ran aground and damaged the Tubbataha Reef in the Sulu Sea, Mr. Diaz did not hesitate to laud the efforts of the US Navy to repair the damage and its willingness to pay the fine for unauthorized entry. The Tubbataha Reef is a protected marine habitat and considered a World Heritage Park by UNESCO since 1993. It is home to more than 1,000 endangered coral and fish species and marine vessels are prohibited from entering the area.
Explore the beauty of one of the world's natural wonders by visiting the Tubbataha
Reefs Natural at, "The Spell of Tubbataha."
Mr. Diaz even thumbed down President Noynoy Aquino’s initial reaction to the incident while attending a conference in Davos, Switzerland, which was obviously made for its sound bite that the United States government should comply with Philippine laws. That the wayward US warship violated the country’s ecological laws, so the US government must pay for damages.
Mr. Diaz also chastised some progressive groups in the Philippines, which he brands as “leftist,” for quickly condemning the United States for the incident as a violation of Philippine sovereignty and demanding a review of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) between the US and the Philippines. Yet these groups, Diaz said, have been astonishingly quiet about China’s aggression against the Philippines. On his part, President Aquino had toned down his earlier pronouncement and clarified that the US warship was in Philippine waters not as part of military exercises between the two countries under the VFA. Of course, this was contrary to reports that the USS Guardian had just come from Subic and was on its way to conduct patrol operations near Palawan where US warships often sail within Philippine territory.
Interestingly, Mr. Diaz would ask “What would they [the leftist groups] do if one day they wake up to see an armada of Chinese warships in the Sulu Sea on their way to Puerto Princesa?” I thought Mr. Diaz already admitted earlier that the Philippines was helpless in defending its territory and recovering those it already lost to China, that it had to ask the United Nations to intervene.
In his article “The enemy within,” Ducky Paredes would repeat the errors of Mr. Diaz in concocting lies in order to stir up anger and rage against those who happen to disagree with their opinions. Mr. Paredes would call these Filipinos as the fifth column of the Chinese Army.
Mr. Paredes wrote: “I really do not mind any Pinoy demonstrating against the Americans. If that makes them feel good about themselves, they should just go ahead, But we are in a dangerous situation today. China looks very much like it is preparing for war and, if it is, we must be wary of our local Communists who would probably prefer their comrades taking over this country from the Filipinos….China has disputes with Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Taiwan and us. Without the US, the People’s Republic could take us all over—in the Philippines, with the help of its local band of gangsters—the New People’s Army. Wake up, Philippines!”
This is pure and simple anti-communist hysteria, the kind of dirty propaganda waged by the government after the Japanese occupation of the Philippines up to the time of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos. It didn’t work then; it will never work now. When truth can be manufactured, it is not difficult to discern the real truth from falsehood.
According to some reports, the USS Guardian ignored the warnings over the radio of the Tubbataha Park Rangers. When the ship ran aground, American soldiers trained their high-powered weapons at the rangers who approached the US warship and barred them from coming near the ship or boarding it.
The Tubbataha Reef incident is not the first time US warships have violated Philippine waters. In fact, today US warships roam freely all over the country under the VFA to conduct military exercises and patrol operations. To Messrs. Diaz and Paredes, this is perfectly all right because the US ships are on Philippine waters to protect us from Chinese aggression.
Military confrontations have already flared up between China and Vietnam, and between the Philippines and China, because of the South China Sea dispute. If such provoked skirmishes continue, they could possibly trigger a regional war, or even a war on a global scale. While ASEAN countries have been trying to achieve a peaceful resolution of the South China Sea dispute, the United States, however, has declared a foreign policy pivot which it called the “American Pacific Century,” boosting American military presence in the Philippines, Australia and the South China Sea region.
To most observers, the growing military presence of the US in the South China Sea is part of America’s policy of containment to encircle China which would set limits on China’s growth as an economic, political and military power. China has been reacting to the US military build-up by becoming more aggressive in its claims over the disputed areas in the South China Sea, thus increasing the possibility of future hostilities between the countries in the region.
The Philippine government, however, is being duplicitous in making its sovereignty claims over territories in the South China Sea and denouncing China’s aggressive tactics while allowing US military intervention and giving the United States Navy carte blanche to use the Philippines as the base for its anti-China operations. Under the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, President Noynoy Aquino has allowed the US to regularly dock its warships, station and operate its surveillance drones, set up its communications infrastructure, carry out intelligence and combat operations, support and participate in counter-guerrilla warfare—all in outright violation and contempt of Philippine sovereignty.
For their part, Messrs. Diaz and Paredes have both shown their willingness to fully embrace American intervention in the South China Sea as if only the United States has the wherewithal to make peace in the region. Aren’t we hearing from the US declaration of the “American Pacific Century” the echoes of the not-too-distant past of America’s Manifest Destiny that made us the first colony of the United States? Are we sliding backwards to assimilate another attempt by America to re-colonize us?
What the Philippines should do is to continue building solidarity with ASEAN countries to advance a regime of neutrality and demilitarization in the whole region and the pullout of all US troops from the Philippines, Australia, Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and in the entire Asia-Pacific. Not to kowtow with the most powerful country in the world in an effort to contain the rise of another superpower, not only in the Asia-Pacific region, but one that could rival its hegemony in the world today.

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