Between A Wreck And A Hard Place

We are simply not getting along with our Chinese neighbors.

 Taiwan has threatened our Republic with all sorts of nasty things over the death of a fisherman allegedly by a member of our Coast Guard while protecting our waters. Now comes the threat of China in the Second Thomas Shoal which it claims is theirs as part of the Spratlys. Chinese warships are circling an abandoned shipwreck in which a number of Philippine Marines are stationed.

In the first case, Taiwan is demanding an apology, an investigation by Taiwanese authorities, financial compensation for the family of the dead fisherman and the criminal prosecution of the Philippine Coast Guard members. Taiwan has threatened to stop the entry of OFWs and to curb tourist and trade relations until the matter is settled.

Malacanang has acceded to the first two conditions. It is studying the third to establish if it will undermine our legal position and present a dangerous precedent. As for prosecution, politically the President can hardly agree to the indictment of our soldiers in the line of duty without raising the heckles of the public and the military.

The President could offer to submit the controversy to an international body acceptable to all parties for adjudication. This would take the matter off his hands. On financial compensation, I am certain many a private body, say the Filipino-Chinese Chamber, would agree to foot the bill (This would partly make up for all the taxes the President suggested its members have not been paying).

If Taiwan wishes to hang tough, we should stop taking their calls. As a diplomatically challenged nation, Taiwan needs us more than we need them. The same goes for our OFWs (who will do their menial work?) and their honeymooners (Boracay is getting too crowded anyway). Trade wise, our businessmen and theirs will find ways to do commerce.  What we cannot accept is for Taiwan to dictate how they want us to conduct ourselves. The original premise, after all, is their fishermen encroached on our waters.

The U.S. wants its two Pacific partners to kiss and make up. The State Department must be burning the hot lines.

The matter of the Thomas Shoal is more complicated. It is an extension of the Scarborough Shoal dispute which is still unresolved. This time, however, the conflict is not over a piece of rock but over a human face or, more exactly, a dozen human faces which is the number of our Marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, the shipwreck.

The confrontation is presently in status quo ante with both China and the Philippines looking the other way. However, this political stand-off cannot last indefinitely. The Chinese could blockade our Marines’ food and water, presenting a diplomatic and military flashpoint, not to say an international media event. The prospect of Filipino soldiers starving to death would unleash racial and nationalistic emotions at home the consequences of which would be ugly.

If the Government decides to evacuate the Marines –and it is going to be a difficult call- we could still claim duress while pursuing our claims in international courts. However China would then effectively possess the area even though the threat of litigation could forestall the development of the territory’s vast oil and gas reserves. The Chinese would also control the vital sea lanes since possession is 95% of the law. We might as well archive this together with our claim on Sabah.

 Arguably, our Marines should never have been placed in a position where they cannot be defended but that is now water under the bridge (or the wreck to be precise). The fact is our countrymen are currently at risk and what are we to do about it. For one, we should ensure that no die-hard Filipinos sail to the shipwreck and present themselves as martyrs willing to die for the nation. The last thing we need is for a band of heroes to escalate the human drama.

 The President has the constitutional duty to protect our territory but as Commander-in-Chief he must also be mindful of the safety of our soldiers. The reality is we are dwarves playing in a land of giants and not very nice giants at that. Unlike the Taiwan dispute, we can expect little help from our friends. If the U.S is dithering over Syria, it is hardly likely to engage China over a shipwreck, mutual defense treaty notwithstanding. Ditto for our ASEAN neighbors who are facing similar issues of their own.

As Filipinos we can only sit and watch. What we should not do –and here I address our politicians and media- is to internally politicize the issue and second guess our President for points. We must not drive him to be in a place he should not be. As a nation we must close ranks behind our leader in moments of crisis.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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One Response to Between A Wreck And A Hard Place

  1. Joe America says:

    Couldn’t disagree more with the statement “As Filipinos we can only sit and watch”. I’ve written a blog to this point which you can rummage around at joeam dot com and find (entitled “The Peace Fleet”). I do agree that Filipinos should unite, as should government spokespeople. Last week, Defense was making excuses to the Chinese about troops being sent to a Spratley outpost, while Foreign affairs was telling China she had no business offering an opinion. I’ll opine on the “consistent message” content in Monday’s blog.

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