When it comes to enforcing an independent foreign policy, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte went from talking like a “hero” to becoming a “zero.”
During the campaign for the presidency in 2016, Duterte made a campaign promise that he will ride a jet ski while carrying a Philippine flag and plant it on the man-made islands China was illegally occupying. He also swore that he will fight against the Chinese government’s continuing expansion activities in Philippine territories.
Five years later, Duterte has reneged on all his promises and even declared that what he said about the jet ski was “a joke” and that only “stupid people” believed it. He has also made a joke about wanting the Philippines to become “a province of China.”
Patriotic groups in the Philippines, however, are not laughing.
China refuses to abide by legal ruling in disputes in West Philippine Sea
Philippine maritime authorities have continued to sound the alarm against the growing presence of Chinese ships in the much-disputed West Philippine Sea (WPS). By law, the WPS refers to the “maritime areas on the western side of the Philippine archipelago.” ” It also covers all the waters surrounding the maritime entitlements – the territorial sea and exclusive economic zones – of the country in the South China Sea, as well as the Philippines’ extended continental shelf or ECS.
Various Chinese vessels continue to be found in the disputed waters, leading to tensions between the Philippines and China. Diplomatic protests have been filed regarding the matter, and also against the illegal fishing activities of Chinese trawlers.
In 2016, the Philippines won an arbitral victory against China and its claims on a handful of islands in the WPS and within China’s 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone. China made sweeping claims of ownership and began its incursions in the WPS in 2012, and this led the Philippines to appeal to the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) to arbitrate. The UN decided in favor of the Philippines, but China has refused to recognize this ruling. Even Duterte has dismissed the decision as just a piece of paper that he can dump in the trash.
Denouncing China’s bullying
In recent months, it has been reported in the media that around 220 Chinese fishing vessels believed to be Chinese militia are in the Julian Felipe Reef and other parts of the WPS. It has earlier been established that China has already built several illegal structures in the Kalayaan Group of Islands.
The fisherfolk group, Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (National Federation of Small Fisherfolk Organizations in the Philippines or Pamalakaya), has been among the most vocal and consistent organizations denouncing China’s incursions into the WPS.
Recently, Filipino fishermen rescued two Chinese fishermen in distress off Palawan, and the Chinese embassy in Manila stated its appreciation. Pamalakaya, however, said that Chinese maritime authorities and fishing vessels would do well to practice the same compassion and kindness in cases where they come across Filipino fishermen in distress or simply at sea fishing.
One of the group’s spokespersons called attention to how China allegedly encourages harassment against Filipino fishermen fishing within Philippine territorial waters. Fisherman Bobby Roldan, Pamalakaya vice-chairperson, said that China continues to violate the rights of Filipino fishermen.
Chinese militia rammed and sank Filipino fishing boat
A fisherman from Zambales, Roldan recounted an incident which happened at a few hours past midnight of June 9, 2019, where a Chinese vessel rammed and sank the F/B Gem-Ver 1, a Filipino fishing boat as it was anchored off Mindoro. Twenty-two fishermen were on board and could have all died had they not been rescued by a passing Vietnamese fishing vessel
“It was a deliberate act of violence and malice. It’s certain that those 22 men would have died if the Vietnamese ship did not help them. China has not apologized for this incident, and even worse, the Philippine government did not even pursue charges on the behalf of the Filipinos who nearly lost their lives. Investigations were made, but the results? Not even a formal diplomatic protest and Duterte’s supporters even dared to blame the fishermen,” Roldan said.
Roldan also said that Chinese Coast Guard vessels continue to impose a fishing blockade in Panatag Shoal, internationally known as Scarborough Shoal. Panatag Shoal has a lagoon where Filipino fishermen can take shelter when caught in the middle of inclement weather. It is located 124-nautical miles from Masinloc Zambales.
“Fishermen in Zambales have been forced to abandon their traditional fishing practices and habits because the Chinese Coast Guard keep harassing them – driving them away whenever they enter Panatag Shoal,” Roldan said.
No support from Duterte government
In the meantime, the declarations of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) that it will boost its presence in the WPS have not bolstered confidence among fisherfolk. Many remain apprehensive about returning to their traditional fishing grounds in Scarborough Shoal.
Roldan pointed out that seeing Chinese vessels and militia manning Scarborough is very discouraging. “We will not risk our lives, not even for our livelihood,” he said. “It’s been very hard, but we don’t have anyone else looking out for us when we’re at sea. We’re not assured by the Duterte government’s statements that China is our friend – what kind of friend drives you out of your own fishing grounds and threatens to shoot your small boats if you persist?”
Almost all fishermen in the Zambales have stopped fishing at the shoal after being threatened and harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard.
Pamalakaya has also reported how, while in the middle of a fishing trip, fishermen in Pangasinan discovered a submersible pump, a device commonly used to test and identify water classifications. The group said that China might be already conducting surveys in areas that have been known to be potential sites for oil and mineral resources. This, the group said, will be followed by illegal exploration activities that will be conducted under the very nose of the Philippine government.
Roldan said that the equipment the fishermen found had a pump and motor parts which can lift liquid elements to the surface and at the same time explore and examine the seafloor.
“We fear that China is already preparing to begin drilling and exploration activities in our country’s exclusive economic zone. We have reason to believe that the fishing blockades are in preparation for Chinese oil and mineral exploration operations in the WPS, for all we know, they have already begun,” he said. “Chinese vessels have been illegally poaching our fish, their navy destroying our coral reefs through massive reclamation activities. Mining is next.”
China’s illegal activities destroy marine life
Filipino scientists are also holding China accountable for what they say is the large-scale devastation of Philippine resources in the WPS. According to a study of the University of the Philippines Marine Science Institute (UP-MSI), the damage China has wrought to WPS reefs -Panatag Shoal (550 hectares) and Kalayaan Islands (1,300 hectares, international name Spratlys) – amounts to some P33.1 billion (US$656 million) annually.
A marine scientist from the group AGHAM and Pamalakaya’s resident fisheries expert, Jerwin Baure, has pointed out that if China’s incursions in the WPS are not stopped immediately, the ecological outcomes will be dire.
“We’re already experiencing serious environmental and fisheries damage because of China’s activities. These may affect our food security if we do not stop China,” he said. “The impact on our fisheries production and the welfare of Filipino fisherfolk are already being felt given that in the last five years, China’s rising aggression has not been contested by the Duterte administration – not the numerous cases of harassment and extortion on Filipino fisherfolk, not the poaching of giant clams, and not the reclamation and building of China military bases on Philippine reef areas.”
Baure pointed out that because of China’s illegal encroachment, fish and other machine resources are in danger of losing their habitats. He explained that as of 2017, China’s reclamation activities and construction of military bases have destroyed at least 16,000 hectares of reefs.
“More importantly, the livelihood and survival of around 627,000 Filipino fisherfolk are also being threatened. China’s continuing aggression poses threats to the safety of our fisherfolk and our ecological systems,” he said.
The marine scientist also said that researchers conducting studies in the WPS are in danger of being harassed by China. “This will impede scientific work vital to fisheries management,” he said.
China’s new Coast Guard Law is a threat to other countries
Still another worrisome development connected to China’s violations against the Philippines’ territorial sovereignty and patrimony are the increasing security measures that China is implementing that can potentially trigger bigger political conflicts.
On January 21 this year, China passed its Coast Guard Law. Observers said that this new law poses a serious threat to the security of all other countries and their marine vessels. The law gives authority to the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) to use force and weapons, what it judges to be “necessary measures”, to prevent foreign countries and individuals from violating or posing an “imminent danger” to violating the sovereignty of China, its sovereign rights, and its jurisdictional rights.
This is the first law that China passed that puts in black and white the specific conditions that justify its coast guard’s actions against foreign vessels, including firing on them. The new law gives the CCG the green light to use force under specific circumstances to protect and defend China’s “jurisdictional waters”. The phrase is very encompassing considering that China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, including the WPS.
The CCG is also tasked with removing structures built by other countries on areas claimed by China. Boarding and inspecting foreign vessels in waters claimed by China is also authorized under the new law, as well as establishing temporary exclusion zones to stop ships and personnel from entering areas that China claims. Since 2010, the CCG has grown to become the biggest coast guard organization in the world.
In a nutshell, the law empowers the CCG to oversee 11 aspects of the sea, among them patrolling Chinese-administered waters, reefs, and islands (artificial islands included among them) and overseeing the resource exploration activities of other vessels as well as managing fishery activities.
China’s open act of aggression
In response to this new law, Filipino fisherfolk led by Pamalakaya filed a petition to the UN, calling on the international body to nullify and declare the CCG law on the West Philippine Sea as void.
Fisherman and former Anakpawis (Toiling Masses) Party-List Representative Fernando Hicap denounced the CCG law as ” an open declaration of acts of aggression” against Filipino fishers in the WPS. He explained that the law is the armed component of China’s declaration of its newest administrative districts in the disputed waters, Xisha and Nansha, under the Sansha City of Hainan province. These districts were formally established on April 18, 2020.
“The establishment of these districts and the CCG Law violate provisions of the Philippine constitution, as well as many other existing laws. It also directly goes against the 2016 UN ruling against China’s claims,” the former lawmaker said.
China’s Xisha district covers the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough), as part of the Zhongsha islands, and was named Huangyan Dao. The Nansha district management area covers parts of the Kalayaan Island Group:
• Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross) as Yongshu Residential Community,
• Panganiban Reef (Mischief) as Meiji Jiao,
• Zamora Reef (Subi) as Zhuibi Jiao,
• Calderon Reef (Cuarteron) as Huayang Jiao, and
• Johnson South Reef as Chigua Jiao.
Hicap told Maritime Fairtrade that the CCG law will without doubt be implemented in the new Chinese administrative areas that are actually in Philippine territories. ” This infamous law will lead to more abuses against Filipino fishermen,” he said. “We have not forgotten how in June 2018 in Panatag Shoal, elements of the Chinese Coast Guard were caught on videotape confiscating, or rather, stealing the fish caught by Filipino fishermen. That was just a sample of China’s abuses.”
Duterte’s pro-China policy is detrimental to national interests
In the meantime, it’s not only the Philippines’ maritime sovereignty that China has been undermining but the country’s other industries as well.
The secretary-general of the science group Agham, Feny Cosico, said that since he assumed office, Duterte has made numerous affirmations of his preference for China as a major trading partner.
“Now we see many China-funded projects appearing under the spotlight. We are very wary of the areas where China is investing. They are increasingly delving not just in vital industries and public utilities, but also into our finite and sovereign natural resources,” she said. “Chinese investment in our vital industries and public utilities is not a good development.”
Cosico argued that the formalization of between 20 to 35 financing agreements with China for Duterte’s flagship infrastructure projects is questionable.
“Mr. Duterte’s economic managers and his trade agreement middlemen report little of the details and implications of these agreements, especially their impact on our economy, and worse, our sovereign right to our natural resources. The copies that we have acquired of signed agreements of Chinese-Philippine deals reveal that the Duterte administration has placed our natural resources as collateral if the government is unable to pay its debt to China. What is this but a complete sell-out of our national patrimony and sovereign rights as a nation?”
In 2018, the government awarded Third Telco status to the Mislatel consortium which comprised China Telecom, Udenna Corporation, Chelsea Logistics, and the Mindanao Islamic Telephone Company. It is well-known that China Telecom is a state-owned and operated firm and is alleged to be the Chinese government’s main weapon of surveillance. China is said to implement systematic invasions of its citizenry’s privacy as well as implement state-sponsored cyberattacks against perceived critics.
Cosico said that China Telecom itself has played a role in several cases of internet traffic misdirection.
“It’s widely believed and with good reason that China spies on its citizens using 200 million surveillance cameras. Beijing tracks the movements of citizens using facial recognition technology and artificial intelligence. How can Duterte allow China and its companies to secure a stake in our telecommunications industry? When we increase our reliance on foreign service providers like China, we put our national security and privacy at risk!”
China’s questionable conduct
The long list of questionable dealings with China has been noted in a Facebook post by University of the Philippines Prof. Edberto Villegas who died in 2020. A staunch patriot and critic of the Duterte administration, Villegas said that Duterte has committed treason by opening the Philippines up to China.
Villegas said that Duterte did this through businessman Dennis Uy, who is said to be a “dummy” of Xi Jinping and who is funded by the Chinese government. In 2016, Uy contributed P30 million (US$594,671) to Duterte’s presidential campaign, and in 2019 bought 40 percent of the shares of the Petron oil corporation which was formerly government-owned. It is now called Phoenix Petroleum and is in a partnership with China National Offshore Oil Corp.
Gambling, Villegas also wrote, has also worsened.
“Duterte has allowed the entry of 500,000 Chinese into the Philippines, most of them POGO players who work at gambling casinos, some of which are owned by Uy. Thousands of Chinese OFWs in the country do not have working permits. Some of them have established illegal restaurants catering only to the Chinese.
“These Chinese are acting like superior foreigners in the Philippines like the British and Americans to Chinese themselves in their restaurants which were put up in Shanghai, China, before World War II, with signs of ‘Chinese and dogs are not allowed inside’.”
Filipinos stand united against China
A popular candidate for the May 2022 senatorial elections, Neri Colmenares of the Makabayan Bloc, summarized the sentiments of patriotic Filipinos regarding Duterte’s dealings with China during a recent protest in front of the Chinese Consulate in Manila.
“We are ashamed and outraged that President Duterte is selling out the Philippines to China. We want to tell Chinese President Xi Jinping that not all Filipinos are subservient to him like Duterte. Not all Filipinos concede China’s ‘possession’ of our waters, nor seek joint ownership and use of our exclusive economic zone,” he said.
“We will never kneel before China. We will not give up our sovereignty. What we need and work for is a peaceful but firm and principled resolution to the growing takeover of China over our national territories and our economy. Filipinos must stand together against this takeover.”