By Marcial Bonifacio
My friends and countrymen, within 200 nautical miles of the exclusive economic zone of the Republic of the Philippines (RP) is a small cluster of rocks, encompassed by a body of water, known as Panatag Shoal to Filipinos and Scarborough Shoal internationally. It was the subject of dispute between RP and China. In 2013, President Benigno Aquino III filed a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) for which it ruled in RP’s favor in 2016. Predictably, imperial China does not acknowledge the ruling and insists on claiming 90% of the international waters via its own “nine-dash line” metric, which the PCA has invalidated pursuant to the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). The PCA also declared Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Recto (Reed) Bank, and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal as “part of the exclusive economic zone and continental shelf of the Philippines, and are not overlapped by any possible entitlement of China.”
Perhaps you all are pondering why we Filipinos should care about some cluster of rocks surrounded by water. If President Rodrigo Duterte defends it, will that put food on our tables, educate our kids, or improve the quality of our lives? If not, then why should any of us be concerned, especially since it risks provoking a war with China—a state of affairs which appears to be nothing short of a suicide mission? Indeed, these are all legitimate and ubiquitously relevant questions worthy of addressing.
First and foremost is the legal issue of sovereignty and constitutional mandate of the President. Since the PCA upheld RP’s sovereignty over Panatag Shoal, it is the government’s duty to defend it. Pursuant to Art. XII, Sect. 2 of the 1987 Constitution, “The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea, and exclusive economic zone. . .”
Dereliction of this duty could be construed as betrayal of public trust, which is an impeachable offense according to Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio and Sen. Richard Gordon. Aside from that, forfeiting our sovereign territory will only serve as a dangerous precedent for other potential encroachments by China. What if China claims it recently unearthed a map indicating their sovereignty over Philippine Rise (formerly Benham Rise) or even the entire province of Palawan? Not only is ceding Panatag Shoal a slippery slope towards imperial tyranny, it calls into question RP’s adherence to the Constitution and the rule of law—international law—in this case.
Second, Panatag Shoal is abundant in fish and natural resources, including minerals and gas. Such resources can be utilized by consumers and businesses, while driving energy costs down, creating more jobs, raising living standards, and generating more tax revenue. Indeed, it would stimulate the economy and contribute to a prosperous future for our country’s youth. If, on the other hand, China is given free reign, there is a risk of irresponsible food shortages. As former assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs Wallace Gregson pointed out, “China stands harshly criticized in the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration judgment for ‘permanent and irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.’”
Third, should China seize Panatag Shoal, freedom of navigation and overflight would be compromised. Indeed, one third of world shipping (valued at over $5 trillion) passes through this route annually. Hence, China has militarized seven reefs with runways, surface navy ship and submarine posts, hangars, radars, and surface-to-air missiles. “The fear,” states Asia-Pacific security expert William Choong, “is that China will start dredging, followed by militarization, thus creating a strategic triangle connecting Woody Island, the Spratlys chain and Scarborough Shoal that would dominate most of the South China Sea.” In order to prevent this, RP can and must assert its sovereignty.
Fourth, should RP decide to publicly acknowledge and enforce the PCA’s ruling, it would project fearless and determined leadership. Not only would ASEAN consider RP an economic partner, it would be respected for defending its sovereignty, vis-a-vis an imperialistic juggernaut. Indeed, it would be a successful model for Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan to emulate, since those ASEAN members also have maritime disputes with China. Incidentally, RP happens to be one of ASEAN’s founders and is the first country to defend its sovereign territory against China via the PCA (and won), which puts it in a historically unique position. Unfortunately, Duterte squandered a perfectly good opportunity to invoke the favorable PCA ruling at the ASEAN summit in which he himself presided as its chairman.
Perhaps you may understand and concur with my factually based points. However, skeptics may reiterate Chinese Pres. Xi Jinping’s war threat and Duterte’s rationale that RP cannot win a war against China, due to its inadequate military capability. In that case, I must defer to the authority of Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, some of whose practical advice I conveyed in my letter to Duterte on May 2017:
- The Philippines should “bring China’s threat of war to another UNCLOS arbitral tribunal, to secure an order directing China to comply with the ruling of the UNCLOS arbitral tribunal that declared the Reed Bank part of Philippine EEZ.” He added that the “Philippines can also ask for damages for every day of delay that the Philippines is prevented by China from exploiting Philippine EEZ.”
- The Philippines should persuade the U.S. to declare Panatag Shoal as part of Philippine territory, which would protect it under the 1951 Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty. Such action would add clarity for legal ramifications, since the shoal was known to be under Philippine jurisdiction as early as the American colonial period and even under Spanish rule.
- The Philippines should send the Philippine Navy to patrol Panatag Shoal. Should China stage an attack on any Philippine navy vessels, the Philippines can invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty, since it covers armed attacks on such vessels, pursuant to Article IV. Of course, that would prompt the U.S. Navy to intervene.
- The Philippines should resume joint naval patrols with the U.S. in the West Philippine Sea in order to project military might, which could deter China from continuing its island-building activity on Panatag Shoal.
In spite of such recourse against China’s war threat, some contend that China would renege on its commitment to financing a $180 billion infrastructure program in RP (including two railways, a hydroelectric dam, and an irrigation system). It must be noted that its impact is not confined to transportation exclusively. Indeed, it adversely affects commerce, the rate of employment, and the price and quality of goods and services.
However, this is a maritime dispute which need not alter trade or financial relations. “I would take the approach of Vietnam as the model,” stated Carpio, “because Vietnam is very strong in resisting China’s encroachment but they continue to have very strong trade relations with China.” Former national security advisor Roilo Golez even raises a 2014 incident in which Vietnam asserted its maritime sovereignty against China, leading to battle. Ultimately, “after two months of that kind of encounter, watched by the entire world, China backed out. That is something that we can study, how they do it.
Even if China’s financial commitment is fully dependent on RP’s forfeiture of Panatag Shoal, China does not possess a monopoly on capital. Alternative financing could be secured from Japan, South Korea, Australia, Sweden, EU, UK, or the U.S. Otherwise, some of the funding can come from tax reform or liquidation of confiscated assets of prosecuted drug lords. In the U.S., Sen. Ted Cruz proposes the Ensuring Lawful Collection of Hidden Assets to Provide Order (EL CHAPO) Act which would allocate seized assets of drug dealers (like “El Chapo”) towards funding President Donald Trump’s border “wall.”
Furthermore, the significance of Panatag Shoal should not be underestimated, nor should our country’s capability of defending it against China, in spite of President Xi Jinping’s war threat. In fact, defending the shoal would display our country’s resolve to effectively enforce its constitutional mandate and would serve as a model for other ASEAN maritime claimants to follow. Additionally, the shoal’s bounty can provide food and jobs for citizens and be a reserve for our country’s energy needs—now and for our youth’s future.
Finally, should the aforementioned reasons be insufficient, ponder this. Last month marked the 119th anniversary of our independence from Spain on June 12, 1898. Today is our 61st anniversary of independence from the U.S. on July 4, 1946 and this year, the 75th anniversary of the Bataan Death March in 1942. Indeed, they are all appropriate occasions in which to contemplate the sacrifices of our soldiers. After all, did they not shed their own blood for the entire Philippines, including Panatag Shoal? Ergo, is it not incumbent on us to cherish and protect what they fought for, so that their deaths shall not have been be in vain? Surely, my friends and countrymen, for this reason alone, I submit we Filipinos should give a damn about Panatag Shoal and implore, nay, demand that the President defend it!
From Freedom Wall:
From Opinyong Tunay: