Avoiding the next Spratly incident
FIRST THINGS FIRST FRANCISCO S. TATAD
The Manila Times
IT wasn’t half as ugly and disconcerting as China’s takeover of Mischief Reef in the Spratlys in 1994 or the standoff between Philippine and Chinese forces at Scarborough Shoal in 2012. But had the parties not exercised the necessary restraint, the shape of Philippine-Chinese relations today could have been much worse. I refer to the maritime incident of November 20 near Pag-asa Island, the largest land feature occupied by the Philippines as part of its territory in the West Philippine Sea, in which a Chinese Coast Guard vessel marked BN5203 intercepted a Philippine naval rubber boat manned by personnel of the naval station Emilio Liwanag and “forcefully retrieved” a large piece of metal debris suspected to be part of a Chinese satellite rocket which the navy men had earlier recovered from Cay 1, a sandbar just off Pag-asa, and were trying to tow back to the island for inspection. From the official account of Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Western Command (Wescom), we learn that the Chinese Coast Guard vessel tried to block the Philippine rubber boat at least twice, then launched a rigid hull-inflatable boat that cut off the cable securing the debris and took off with it. Two hours after the incident, several Chinese artillery shots were heard from Subi Reef, some 26 miles southwest of Pag-Asa. The incident took place some two to three nautical miles off Pag-asa, two days before the official visit to Palawan of US Vice President Kamala Harris, who was a special guest at the formal launching of the new “agreed locations” under the PhilippineUS Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). News surrounding Harris’ visit drowned out all media references to the Pag-asa incident, but failed to quiet down the Navy’s protest. Since then, the Department of Foreign Affairs has sent a note verbale to the Chinese embassy in Manila protesting the incident; and the embassy has offered its own version of the incident. According to the Chinese side, on November 22, the Chinese Coast Guard spotted an unidentified floating object in the waters off Nanshan islands, later identified as a wreckage from the firing of a rocket recently launched by China. Before the Chinese Coast Guard could get to it, Philippine Navy men were able to retrieve it and had begun towing it. The Chinese talked to the navy men amicably, and after some “friendly consultations,” they turned over the debris to the Chinese. No “forcible retrieval” took place, they said. Vice Admiral Carlos, who has jurisdiction over Palawan, the Kalayaan Island Group and the West Philippine Sea, stands by his men’s story. And Department of National Defense (DND) Officer in Charge Jose Faustino Jr. stands fully behind Carlos. If the navy men, as claimed, had indeed turned over the metal object to the Chinese after “friendly consultations,” why would they complain later that it was “forcibly” taken from them by the Chinese? It just doesn’t make sense. These are men who serve the flag under a strict moral code. Carlos for one is a highly respected three-star ranked Navy officer, who graduated from the US Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1989 and the Naval Command College in Nanjing, China, in 2008. Even the Chinese naval officers operating in the area must know of him as an officer and a gentleman. He is the most senior officer in the Navy lineal list, and is considered top material for the Philippine Navy command. Many are even hoping President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would make him the new Navy chief, if only to send a strong signal to China and even to the US. That, however, is a separate matter for the president and commander in chief. Right now the problem is, how to resolve this conflict without making it bigger than it is. Carlos could have exploited the situation by making some noise to the traveling US press when Vice President Harris visited his command. He did no such thing, but left everything entirely in the hands of the President and the Department of Foreign Affairs. What can the DFA do now, in the face of two directly conflicting versions of the same incident? An impartial investigation would obviously help, but who would investigate and who would be investigated? Can either party produce any impartial witnesses? We need to put this whole issue to rest, and make sure the incident is not repeated, or if ever it is repeated, the Chinese and Philippine governments should have a peaceful way of jointly dealing with it. This means that despite the troublesome relations between China and the Philippines arising from certain South China Sea issues, the two neighbors, being both members of the United Nations and the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), should try to develop certain mechanisms that would allow them to address any “misunderstanding” or minor incident through constructive dialogue. This is not the easiest thing to do, but we cannot write it off. If the overarching objective is peace, all it requires is a little imagination and a modest amount of goodwill between the parties. It could be but one small step across the wide chasm that cannot be easily bridged, but it may be the only way for us to move, if ever so slowly, forward.