MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/29 April) – Both the Philippines and China have upped the stakes in the disputed Spratly Islands through a heated exchange of statements and stonewalling amid a standoff that started early this month when Philippine Navy men tried to arrest Chinese fishermen who were seen poaching at Panatag Shoal or Scarborough Shoal.
Being the most powerful country in this side of the globe, the actions by China can only be interpreted as that of a bully wanting to grab a territory that is already outside of her exclusive economic zone based on the limits sets by international law.
Knowing the Philippines cannot match her military strength, China has resorted to plain aggression by sending more vessels to Panatag. The Philippines on the other hand has only deployed a token force to face off with the de facto invaders.
Temperatures between Beijing and Manila shot up with the holding of another round of PH-US military exercises dubbed Balikatan 28 amid the standoff in Panatag. Aside from the US troops, military personnel from the Southeast Asian countries reportedly took part in the war games that kicked off west of Palawan, the Philippine province nearest to the Spratlys.
Beijing took the war games as an act of provocation but did not show any hint of being intimidated by US presence. A Chinese Communist Party-owned tabloid even went to the extent of urging the Chinese government to prepare for a limited sea warfare [against the Philippines]. As the Balikatan entered its second week, the Chinese Embassy in Manila announced that Beijing had rejected the idea of bringing the territorial conflict to the International Tribunal on the Law of the Seas.
China has spurned suggestions of submitting to international arbitration knowing that her claim rests on untenable grounds. The distance alone of China’s nearest point to the Spratlys is enough to refute her assertion of sovereignty. But for both parties the immediate question at the moment is how the US would respond in the event of a small war for control of the territory. For the Philippines, this means weighing the possible implications of drawing the US on Chinese behavior.
The prevailing notion within official circles and media commentators is that the US would instinctively come to our rescue in the event of a shooting war with China. They presume too much by relying on the supposed historical ties between the Philippines and the US, forgetting that the latter always acts based on national interest and not on sentimental grounds. The plight of World War II veterans who have waited an eternity for Washington’s promise of benefits betrays double-talk on the part of the Americans.
China may not launch a full-scale war against the Philippines. But it won’t hesitate to wage a limited shooting war in Panatag to test our will and send a message to other claimants. China won’t mind international condemnation because she knows the world, including the US, is more interested in her huge market than the territorial rights of a small country. Why would the US, for instance, risk doing something that will reduce Chinese consumption of Coke, McDonald’s and Levi’s?
In fact, the US may even be secretly happy over the tension at Panatag, as she can exploit it to her advantage. With the Philippine public increasingly growing anxious over Chinese aggression, US military intervention will be viewed as a necessary evil in the face of threats from a powerful neighbor.
As the cards are stacked against our favor, it seems that the best option for now is to submit the issue to international arbitration despite China’s refusal to go to the ITLOS (International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea) or the International Court of Justice, instead of risking heightened tension in Panatag by drawing the US into it. Insisting on a peaceful resolution of the conflict amid Chinese bullying will enable us to stand on high moral ground before the international community. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno writes mainly on the environment, human rights and politics. He can be reached at email@example.com)