China’s failure to remove its vessels from Panatag Shoal is clear evidence of Chinese shadow play in the resolution of the dispute. Remember that about a month ago, Chinese authorities declared a fishing ban in the area for a period of two and a half months. Philippine authorities, in an effort to calm the standoff, followed suit and declared a similar ban. But contrary to the ban, no less than 20 Chinese fishing boats remain in the lagoon of the shoal, an area that is approximately as big as Quezon City. This number is in addition to no less than three Chinese government vessels in the area. This is clear doublespeak.
Despite China’s doublespeak, President Aquino still ordered our two remaining government vessels in the area to leave. The pretext was the onslaught of a powerful typhoon. But diplomatic pundits do not buy this. They say that the real reason is that our policy makers probably miscalculated that China, like us, would want to reduce the tension the area. They hoped that Chinese authorities would reciprocate the order for our vessels to leave. This did not happen.
At least, it is now clear that China does not intend, or wish, to scale down its action. It is also now clear that China will not settle for anything less than our relinquishment of our claim to the shoal. This is their desired end-result when they espouse a “diplomatic” solution to the standoff.
The question in our mind is why is China taking this position only now? And why the brazenness of its acts?
Observers posit that China’s actuations are a precursor of further trouble to come. The real battle ground is Recto Bank where we are about to drill for oil. Our responses to Chinese provocation in the shoal will in turn determine their future actuations in Recto Bank. On the basis of their current track record in the shoal, we should expect the Chinese to send its entire Armada to Recto should we persist in our effort to drill for oil in the area. Already, China has announced that it would conduct military exercises aimed at defending their perceived right to explore for mineral deposits in the West Philippine Sea. This is a clear message that China will use its recently acquired military might to defend its interest in these troubled waters.
It is imperative for Philippine policymakers now to acknowledge this state of affairs. Yes, diplomacy is the preferred mode of international dispute settlement. But this is only when the parties to the dispute observe good faith in their negotiations to arrive at a mutually acceptable solution to the dispute. It cannot be the solution when the Chinese view is that diplomacy should only result in our recognition of their claim to the area.
I have consistently argued hence that the only recourse for the country is to resort to the binding and mandatory dispute settlement procedure of the UNCLOS. The question was asked recently in a forum sponsored by the Ortigas library on why the Philippines has not brought the matter earlier to this dispute settlement body.
Professor Randy David had a notable observation. President Gloria Arroyo, according to him, courted Chinese support precisely by sitting on our options in asserting our national territory. This appears plausible given that instead of asserting our sovereignty, PGMA and her cohorts at the DFA and other line agencies—many of whom have recycled themselves as being pro-P Noy today—allowed the Chinese to engage, among others, in the exploration of our natural resources through the Joint Maritime Seismic and Exploration Agreement of the West Philippines Seas and the grant of mining grants in Diwalwal and North Davao to the company behind the botched National Broadband Network, ZTE Corporation. This is, many believe, in return for the many fraudulent Chinese funded projects entered into by the Arroyo regime, including the Northrail contract and the NBN-ZTE deal. In short, it was territory in exchange for pay-offs, or “tongpats.”
It is hoped that President Aquino will hence assert Philippine sovereignty in territories that are in fact ours. The starting point is a clear and unequivocal declaration from a body such as the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea on which country is entitled to explore and exploit the natural resources in Panatag and in the Kalayaan group of islands.