"This could put to end the hospitality and courtesy which we have been receiving from China."
While our President continues to rant in asserting an independent foreign policy, the government hangs on to the US-sponsored “commitment” to uphold the freedom of navigation, overflight and other lawful uses of the South China Sea. To quote the press release issued by the Department of Foreign Affairs made after the Manila and Washington concluded the two-day 8th Bilateral Strategic Dialogue, “oth sides recognize the importance of a strong Philippine-US alliance in enhancing security cooperation and promoting regional security and prosperity….Both sides also emphasized the importance of concluding an effective and substantive Code of Conduct that would not prejudice the rights under international law of both claimant states and non-claimant states in the SACS.”
Our participation in the US military exercise to assure us of our rights as a claimant state to the South China Sea is rather abrasive considering that there has been no instance by China or any other country in the region blocking the free passage of navigation in the SCS. Our close call of a direct conflict with China in the Scarborough Shoal cannot be considered an attempt to stall the freedom of navigation but an issue where China wanted to rescue their fishermen who were arrested by our Navy, caused by the misinformation sent by the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario.
To begin with, our partnership with the US to help us “assert” our freedom of navigation is ludicrous considering that it is being used as cover to compel us to stick to an alliance solely for the protection of its own interest. Note that none of the feared incidents happened, specifically of the US Navy gesturing to come to our assistance in the event of an attempt to interdict our freedom of navigation. In fact, this security arrangement has generated tension, even as the alliance refuses to identify the anticipated enemy that allegedly threatens to block the waterway.
The presence of a foreign naval power is only justified by that thin veil of having an alliance with the Philippines raising the banner of ensuring freedom of navigation to itself. This serves as a dilemma. Should the Philippines openly identify China as an enemy even for the purpose of justifying the bilateral exercise, it runs the risk of throwing overboard all those economic and developmental agreements we entered into with China. That spoils altogether our efforts to deepen our understanding with China, hoping it will serve as our contribution to stop the increasing militarization in the SCS.
That could put to an end the hospitality and courtesy which we have been receiving from China, and collaterally treating it as an enemy by virtue of our defense treaty with the US. That could possibly put to an end such humanitarian assistance, disaster and rescue mission from China or even make it difficult for our fishermen to catch fish in areas which we have no effective control like what happened in the Scarborough Shoal. All these could happen if we decide to identify China as our enemy in conjunction to the desire of the US, which we know is more interested in economically and politically isolating China.
It would even be more dangerous to endorse the hostile attempt of the US to chart a dangerous course of testing just how far the Chinese Navy would challenge its ships patrolling close to the 12-mile restricted territorial sea circumferential to those islands it presently occupies and on which it has effectively installed sensitive military and communications equipment. This could put our alliance to a litmus test just how far our ships would follow that dangerous course of taunting the Chinese Navy.
Admittedly, the US Navy is treated differently by the Chinese Navy. It is the US navy that is bent on intruding over those waters to put to a test China‘s determination. But then the situation was far different when the so-called gunboat diplomacy worked against China’s rickety junk ships. Today, the Chinese Navy is equally packed with the same or even stronger weapons to deter this challenge. Our joining in the military exercise to assert our misplaced claim of freedom of navigation could elevate the Philippine Navy to the category of the US Navy considered as an enemy attempting to intrude into its territory.
The China is fully aware that the US Navy is not engaged in the exercise of freedom of navigation but in conducting a routine naval patrol, an objective far different from its avowed claim. On the other hand, the Philippines, has every right from the standpoint of international law and from our right to freedom of navigation as an adjacent state. The Philippines has the right to patrol, to engage in rescue and protect its fishermen, to engage in disaster operations, to preemptive attempts to land prohibited goods and entry of illegal immigrants. There are many activities our navy can do with the active cooperation of navies from adjacent states to promote trust and friendship and even encourage people-to-people trading among states in the region.
Our participation in the military exercise is to purposely test our freedom of navigation will put asunder all our efforts to achieve friendship and cooperation with China. China and other countries in the region which have bad historical experience with the US like Vietnam have every right to question the regular patrol of the US in the SCS. It is to them an offshore exercise of hegemony. It conveys an implied message that this body of water and territories adjacent to it remains subject to its exclusive influence and to a certain extent controlled by the US. This has a shade of the US Monroe Doctrine—to declare as off-limits to European colonization of South America.
It is in light of this interpretation that some states see the presence of the US Navy as annoying. As it steps up to assert their so-called right to freedom of navigation, the attitude of the local population is slowly transformed to one of seeing the US presence as a threat to their own security.
Finally, the presence of the US navy patrolling the SCS is seen as a liability than an advantage to them. Before that, the concept of freedom of navigation was virtually non-existent to the local population. The claims over these islands only intensified when a naval foreign power began to assert the right of navigation to its naval but addressed to countries in the region. Of course, this was due to the discovery of natural gas and other minerals in the area, but this does not detract the fact that the presence of the US navy is asserting its power over and above the interest of the claimant states with China eyed as its principal target.