China’s latest map should not distract the Philippine government from addressing the more “disconcerting” Chinese harassment of Philippine vessels in the West Philippine Sea, according to a foreign affairs and security analyst.
If anything, said Lucio B. Pitlo III, the map with a new 10-dash line that still encompasses parts of the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone should prod President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to push for Congress’ approval of the proposed Maritime Zones Act.
Pitlo said the measure, if enacted into law, would delineate the Philippines’ maritime zones based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
Mr. Marcos attended the just-concluded annual summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) held in Jakarta, where he said that while the Philippines was not seeking conflict, it would “meet any challenge to our sovereignty.” He flew to Indonesia’s capital on the heels of protests from the Philippines and other countries over what China called a “standard map” in which it expands on its claim over almost the entire South China Sea.
Message to Taiwan
Pitlo, who was a lecturer at Ateneo de Manila University’s Chinese Studies Program, said he believed that China reissued its map to reiterate its claim over Taiwan in view of the latter’s increasing ties with Washington.
“I think this is as much a message to Taipei as it is a message to its other neighbors, India and Southeast Asia,” Pitlo told CoverStory.ph on Sept. 4 via Zoom from Taipei, where he is a fellow and visiting scholar at the National Chengchi University Department of Diplomacy.
On the map, China placed the 10th dash line east of Taiwan to indicate ownership and sovereignty over the self-governing island, which it claims as a renegade province. It also included India’s Arunachal Pradesh state and parts of Jammu and Kashmir region.
But Pitlo said: “[China] can claim anything from the sun, the moon, the stars. But the ability to impose and enforce their claim is another thing.”
The past several weeks has seen an increasing intimidation of Philippine vessels by China’s coast guard. On Aug. 5, a Chinese coast guard vessel fired a water cannon on Philippine boats delivering supplies to troops posted on Ayungin Shoal.
Pitlo said the map could be a “pretext” for China to “do what it is doing’’ in the Philippine maritime zones, and that this was what the Philippine government should “prepare for.”
He said such preparations could include stepping up sea patrols, modernizing the Navy and Coast Guard, and “warming up” to more joint exercises with the United States, Japan and Australia.
“[These steps are] just to signal and to demonstrate to China that we will step up this engagement with external partners if it will continue making this disturbance, this disruption of our economic activities and our sovereign rights,” he said.
Pitlo expressed agreement with calls for the Philippine government to draw up its own standard map. He said China’s new map should prod Mr. Marcos to certify the passage of the proposed Maritime Zones Act as urgent.
“I think passing the maritime zones bill is the minimum that we can do for our domestic and international audiences, to convey to them that this is the Philippine map. That this is our conception of our territory, and this conception of territory is based on international law,” he said.
Senate President Miguel Zubiri has assured the passage of the Senate version of the measure—which seeks to clarify the extent of the Philippine maritime domain as well as the Philippines’ legal powers over it—before the yearend.
Pitlo described China’s release of the map in the runup to the Asean summit in Jakarta and this weekend’s G20 meeting in New Delhi as “ill-timed.”
“You would not want to alienate or ostracize your neighbors in the lead-up to very important leaders’ meetings,” he said.
He expressed hope that Asean leaders would tackle the map in their sessions and craft a statement in a language that would “show their displeasure about this new action taken by China.”
Formed in 1967, Asean is composed of the Philippines, Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Pitlo, however, warned against calls for Manila to sever ties with Beijing. He said the Philippines needed China, its biggest trade partner, in order to recover from the losses inflicted by the Covid-19 pandemic.”
He said the Philippines should “take a page” from Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, which have taken a “more subdued” tack vis-à-vis China on the sea dispute by “compartmentalizing” diplomatic, territorial and economic issues.
“We’re not saying that we are more strident in protecting our waters [than they],” he said, adding that their actions were worth studying: “They’re investing in their maritime capacity and in their security partnerships with other countries, even though they don’t have formal alliances with these other countries, like the Unites States. And their investment in their navy and coast guard is also significant.”
At the same time, these countries’ dialogue channels with Beijing remained “open and robust,” he said.
China’s claims in the South China Sea overlap with those of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
Pitlo acknowledged that enthusiasm for a bilateral dialogue channel may have been dashed by the statement of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) that its “hotline” with its Chinese counterpart never functioned during conflicts at sea.
He cited the blocked resupply mission to Ayungin Shoal in early August, in which the PCG said it had made repeated calls using the hotline channel. “But nobody from the Chinese side was picking up,” he said.
The PCG indicated that the hotline, set up during the watch of President Rodrigo Duterte, Mr. Marcos’ predecessor who was on cozy terms with China, had been discontinued. The memorandum of understanding establishing it was not renewed when Mr. Marcos made a state visit to China last January.
“If the channels are not working, then it may dampen the enthusiasm of the Philippine side to sustain the mechanisms of other channels, including on the foreign policy part,” Pitlo said.