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The Philippines Is Still Losing Territory To China

April 5, 2019

Via Wikimedia Commons.

The Department of National Defense‘s (DND) latest press release spared few words on the situation in the Spratly Islands but emphasized the Philippines’ commitment to its territory. “The Western Command of the AFP has been continuously monitoring the waters around Pag-asa (or Thitu Island) and they are aware of the presence of Chinese vessels and their activities,” it read.

Without assigning blame to China, the DND cautioned “other countries and their vessels to do the same…in international waters.” Pag-asa Island is a small airbase with a dock that serves as the Philippines’ main outpost in the Spratlys, whose expanse falls under the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

The DND’s press release came amid news of Chinese ships, likely those registered with the “maritime militia,” having surrounded Pag-asa (translates to “Hope” in Filipino) that forms part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) controlled by the Philippines. Various statements have since come out of government agencies, with the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) assuring the public it would file a diplomatic protest. But President Rodrigo Duterte himself, during a campaign rally for the upcoming midterm elections, had to explain why he must balance the country’s relations with China and the US.

“This is not a warning,” he said. “This is just a word of advice to my friends because we are friends with China…I will not plead or beg. I’m just telling you to lay off Pag-asa because there are [Filipino] soldiers there.”

“But it has become geopolitical,” Duterte told his audience. “America wants to pass [the West Philippine Sea]  and is forcing the issue. Then one day someone makes a mistake and it will all just explode. Goodbye Palawan, Iloilo, Pangasinan…at least in Davao we’re very far away.”

Recent events in Pag-asa do subscribe to a pattern where Chinese vessels either intercept or prohibit access around a certain feature. In 2012 the Scarborough Shoal, located just off the Luzon coastline, almost became a flashpoint when Filipino ships withdrew under Chinese pressure. To be clear, the Scarborough Shoal is far away from the Spratlys and is under the Philippines’ sovereignty. But since late 2016 Manila has gone to impressive lengths cooperating with Beijing, whose generosity–from infrastructure loans to military logistics and political advisers–should dampen whatever antagonism arises from the festering maritime dispute.

Duterte’s fondness for China is now becoming strained since the historical alliance with the US remains intact (Duterte tried severing ties with Washington, DC in 2017) and the world’s navies are now traveling across the South China Sea. Yet, as events in Pag-asa show, Manila’s openness to Beijing is still a tightrope. If it tries to shut down Pag-asa or force its evacuation this will embarrass Duterte and cause a diplomatic rift undoing years of progress. There’s a strong possibility, however, for the Philippines’ present leadership to accept China’s actions regardless if these harm Filipino citizens. Doing so is a proven tactic of the present government.

In 2018, for example, the extortion of Filipino fishermen by Chinese maritime police in Scarborough Shoal was waved away by Duterte’s press team amid widespread condemnation by activists, the local media, and outraged citizens venting online.

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