How to take back what’s ours

How to take back what’s ours
Filipino scientists arrive at Sandy Cay sandbar on March 21 in this Philippine Coast Guard photo.

Surely many Filipinos were startled by footage shown on ANC last week of a Chinese Navy helicopter hovering perilously low over Sandy Cay last March 23. 

On the ground were Filipino marine scientists doing research on biodiversity and inspecting the apparently poor state of the corals at the sandbar about two nautical miles from the Philippines’ Pag-asa Island. The chopper’s sustained positioning some 50 feet above the sand bar for about 10 minutes caused extreme air and water turbulence and scattered pieces of dead coral, injuring some of the Filipinos and forcing them to stop work and leave the area. 

TV viewers doubtless came away appalled by yet another display of China’s continuing offensive behavior in the West Philippine Sea, albeit different in that it was inflicted from the air on Filipino civilians engaged in scientific research. The footage was released by the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR).

The buzzing incident at Sandy Cay brought to mind a newspaper column in 2021 by Antonio T. Carpio, a leading light in the Philippines’ fight for its sovereign rights over its 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea and a retired senior associate justice of the Supreme Court.

Sandy Cay was once “a disappearing sandbar,” according to Carpio. Writing in “Crosscurrents,” his then weekly column at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he narrated how Sandy Cay became permanently above water at high tide in 2017 by dint of the “pulverized corals” that drifted into it from Subi Reef.

Here is a portion of what Carpio wrote in “Tiny Sandy Cay reveals the big lie” (May 12, 2021): “Half of the year Sandy Cay would be above water at high tide when the action of the waves build up the sand in the cay. The other half of the year, when the storms disperse the sand, Sandy Cay would be submerged at high tide,”

He continued: “In early 2017, Sandy Cay became permanently above water at high tide due to sand, from pulverized corals, that drifted into the cay from the submerged Subi Reef about 10 nautical miles away. China had pulverized the corals in Subi Reef to build an artificial island, more than seven times larger than Pag-asa Island. At this point, China decided to seize Sandy Cay to nullify the July 12, 2016 Arbitral Award that Subi Reef is part of the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island. Subi Reef is now a Chinese naval base with an airstrip.

“As a natural geologic feature permanently above water at high tide the whole year round, Sandy Cay undisputably became in 2017 an island territory entitled to its own 12 nautical mile territorial sea that includes Subi Reef. Sandy Cay sliced away one-third of the territorial sea of Pag-asa Island, which lost a territorial sea more than three times the land area of Quezon City. China’s seizure of Sandy Cay in 2017 was clearly a loss of a Philippine island territory during the Duterte administration.”

Not one square inch

How does that seizure impact on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s recent declaration before the Australian Parliament? “I will not allow any attempt by any foreign power to take even one square inch of our sovereign territory,” he said last Feb. 29 in the course of an official visit to Australia, which began its first joint sea and air patrols with the Philippines in the South China Sea in November 2023.

How does it fit in the recent claim of Harry Roque, spokesperson of then President Rodrigo Duterte, that his boss engaged in a “gentlemen’s agreement” with China’s Xi Jinping to maintain the status quo at Ayungin Shoal? It’s a claim that appears intended to explain China’s harassment of Philippine vessels on rotation and resupply missions to Ayungin, which lies well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and where troops are stationed at the crumbling warship BRP Sierra Madre that serves as outpost.

The harassment by China’s coast guard and maritime militia has been incessant, as reported, with Philippine supply boats heading to Ayungin warned off, stalked, blocked, subjected to laser beam, and water-cannoned. On March 23, the day of the buzzing of Filipino scientists on Sandy Cay, a water-cannon attack injured at least three Filipinos and damaged their wooden supply boat.

China has been busy indeed on March 23 in the West Philippine Sea. Per reports, its helicopter disrupted the work of and frightened and injured the scientists from the University of the Philippines’ Institute of Biology, the BFAR, and the Department of Agriculture’s National Fisheries Research and Development Institute. Still, the initial research findings are expected to be announced soon, Comm. Jay Tarriela said at a press conference, suggesting that for all its acts of intimidation, China was not entirely successful in stopping the study project at Sandy Cay. 

That remark and others earlier made by Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard’s spokesperson on the West Philippine Sea, are consistent with this administration’s stance of resistance to China’s encroachments in Philippine maritime territory even if only with diplomatic protests and, on the water, with feints, maneuvers, and sheer persistence. 

Unthinkable in the past

Of course, that official stance—which correctly includes enlisting the support and cooperation of other nations in upholding a rules-based order in the South China Sea—was unthinkable not too long ago. The attentive observer taking note of the Department of Foreign Affairs’ “strongest protest” against China’s “aggressive actions” in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal on March 23 may vaguely recall that during Duterte’s term, Navy authorities sneered at a TV journalist’s report on a Chinese vessel blocking and harassing a Philippine ship, describing it as mere angling for a scoop. 

And that the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which rejects China’s claim over almost the entire South China Sea and upholds the Philippines’ sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone, was actually met with dejection by the Duterte administration. Or that, truly memorable, Duterte described the ruling more than once as a scrap of paper meant for the garbage, and even pronounced himself “inutil”—impotent—in waging war on China, as though finding its encroachments unacceptable, and clearly saying so, necessarily involved taking up arms against it.

While we’re at it and memory serves, in June 2019 at Recto Bank a Chinese trawler rammed the Philippine boat Gem-Ver 1 and sailed on, heedless of the grave damage done. The captain and crew were left to fend for themselves in the icy water and were saved by passing Vietnamese fishermen. Then Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announced, and strongly condemned, the incident; the boat’s captain said the ramming was intentional. After the back and forth in the ensuing days, including announced plans for an inquiry, Duterte pronounced the matter “a little maritime accident,” backed by similar statements from Lorenzana and other Cabinet officials. Even then Agriculture Secretary Emmanuel Pinol got into the act, taking it upon himself to persuade the captain to express uncertainty at what had really occurred.

With the Lenten season over, and hopefully having gained strength from the eternal lessons of faith, determination and perseverance, concerned Filipinos such as those making up the coalition Atin Ito (literally, “This is Ours”) are renewing efforts to push for the protection of the Philippines’ territorial integrity and its fishers and seafarers. 

There’s enormous work to be done, both in the public and private spheres, at local and international levels, in the face of China’s presence in Philippine waters. What the maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal told ANC in November 2021 rings ever true: “Now we have trouble pushing back to recover, because we have allowed them to come so close. We have given them so much that they now don’t want to let go.”

Read more: Gov’t urged: Defend, assert territorial integrity in West Philippine Sea

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