Global Times, a daily tabloid newspaper owned by the Chinese Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, recently published a scathing commentary attacking the Philippines’s Department of National Defense (DND) for its statement on Whitsum Reef, locally known as Julian Felipe, in the Spratlys.
It said the defense department was raising the unwanted presence of hundreds of shipping vessels near the uninhabited reef as a political issue, ahead of the May 2022 presidential elections.
Right on target. It is, indeed, an emerging election campaign issue in next year’s polls as China’s creeping influence in the country, through President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration, is felt not only in the economy but in the political and security sectors.
China has rammed and sunk a local fishing boat in the Reed Bank and has driven away local fishermen from traditional fishing grounds in the Spratlys as well as Scarborough Shoal.
It has also blockaded Philippine-occupied features in the Spratlys with hundreds of fishing and maritime enforcement vessels since 2018, amid the country’s efforts to improve facilities like the airfield on Thitu Island, known as Pagasa Island.
The commentary may have exposed China’s hidden intentions in swaying the presidential elections to its favor. China fears the South China Sea issue might work against a candidate anointed by Duterte to succeed him in office — whether his own daughter or his trusted sidekick who is now a sitting senator and who enjoys wide media coverage through the daily “Laging Handa” news briefing.
China knows a big majority of the Philippine population is fiercely anti-China despite the president’s adulation for the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, and it could lose the leverage it immensely enjoys under Duterte if it becomes an election issue next year.
It also fears the United States could exploit the country’s pro-US sentiments as well as the defense and military establishments’ traditionally close relations with Washington to influence the elections.
If a pro-American candidate wins in next year’s balloting, China will not feel safe with a strengthened chain of military alliances — from South Korea and Japan in the north to Australia in the south and with Taiwan and the Philippines in the center.
Washington’s imaginary line of security alliances in the Asia and Pacific could threaten Beijing’s shaky first island chain of defense in the South China Sea.
Its seven artificial islands in the Spratlys would be easy targets for US tactical and conventional ballistic missiles fired from agile and mobile submarines, land-based platforms and strategic heavy bombers.
Washington has been hunting for potential locations in the region to deploy its short and intermediate-range ballistic missiles to counter the growing threat from China.
A new Philippine leader who is not a China lackey could strike fear at China if he or she allows the US to deploy lethal weapons on a temporary and rotating basis under a new security agreement.
For the first time, the rivalry between two superpowers — the long-time security ally United States and the new-found friend China — will play a big role in Philippine elections.
Domestic issues, like the pandemic response, the economy, and law and order are the other issues that will dominate the May 2022 elections.
Since the early 1970s when dictator Ferdinand Marcos destroyed the political party system, elections were largely decided by personalities and not by platforms.
Celebrities, film stars, sports icons and members of political clans have made it to national and local positions regardless of political platforms, which are not taken by heart.
For instance, Duterte ran in 2016 on the platform of federalism. Five years into his presidency, he has completely forgotten his campaign promise.
He has also forgotten his promise to ride on a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on one of the uninhabited reefs in the disputed South China Sea.
Beyond rhetoric, Duterte has not lifted a finger to defend the country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights in the disputed sea. In fact, he has prevented the military from joining multilateral exercises and maritime patrols with the United States and other allies.
Diplomatic and legal mechanisms will not resolve overnight the alarming presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the Spratlys. It took three years for the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to decide on the case filed by Manila against Beijing and it has remained unenforced nearly half a decade later.
But “showing the flag” in the disputed area and challenging China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea could help a lot.
Manila should learn from Jakarta and Hanoi in dealing with the Chinese intrusions into their exclusive economic zones or EEZs.
Indonesia has been blowing up Chinese fishing boats. When China tried to drill in its EEZ, Vietnam confronted the Chinese. The standoff did not last long and the drilling rig eventually withdrew.
Taiwan is learning a lot from the daily intrusions into its maritime and air space as it scrambles fighters to intercept Chinese planes almost every day.
The Philippines has very limited capability to challenge Chinese intrusions. It has a few ocean-going vessels with longer endurance and range as well as air assets. It may not have the logistics and resources to support these operations. Challenging China would drain the country’s military budget in terms of fuel and other logistics.
But joining multilateral exercises in the Spratlys and around Scarborough Shoal would help a lot.
The other points raised by Global Times are completely twisted views.
It cannot claim Chinese sovereignty over Julian Felipe Reef based on its nine-dash line, which has been repudiated by international law.
China is standing on sand in claiming sovereignty over the reef. In contrast, the Philippines is sitting on solid ground, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), in asserting that the reef is within its EEZ.
China must not deny the fact the Philippines has every right over Julian Felipe Reef.
China’s propaganda through a Global Times commentary will not stick. Beijing should adhere to international laws. The longer the vessels stay there, China’s embarrassment grows.
It will lose its face in the international community. China must save its reputation and leave the reef now.