First as tragedy, then as farce: That axiomatic trajectory all but characterises the Philippine president’s office response to China’s latest moves, not even in the South China Sea where it has erected a formidable foothold via militarised artificial islands, but in Benham Rise, an undisputedly Philippine-owned ocean area in which China has absolutely no business poking its fingers.
But that’s what the Asian superpower has done – surreptitiously conducting ostensible scientific studies of the vast underwater plateau off Luzon and, to the alarmed surprise of everyone but the appeasers in the Palace, eventually managing to have Chinese names affixed to five submarine features in Benham in the books of the International Hydrographic Organisation. To the public hue and cry at such unabated muscle-flexing by China in the region, even in areas like Benham Rise that has been designated by the UN as part of sovereign Philippine territory, the Beijing-friendly Duterte administration has offered one absurd defence after another.
“What was the original name of Philippine Rise? Benham is an American name! The Americans named it. Did we file a diplomatic protest?” bleated Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, oblivious to the irony that President Duterte renamed Benham to Philippine Rise in 2017 precisely to further strengthen Philippine ownership of the area.
The latest howler, one that made observers do a double take to make sure the remarks weren’t from a satirical or fake news site, came from presidential spokesperson Harry Roque: “All these were named by the Chinese, but this did not mean China owned these,” he said, before adding, once again, that by-now default spin on Beijing’s intentions: “There is no bad faith on China’s part.”
But how would he know? How would Cayetano, or anyone else in the president’s office, know what really goes on in the minds of Chinese tacticians and military experts in the sanctums of Beijing?
As with most common-sense human experience, the public only knows and verifies by virtue of past experience, and in this the behavior of China warrants no such naive, unthinking consideration.
Not only is it engaged in an aggressive ownership dispute with at least five countries in the Southeast Asian region over islands in the South China Sea – a confrontation that has made the strategic waterway a major flashpoint area and a cause for international concern, given Beijing’s unilateral moves to take over and militarise the region.
Worse, from a Philippine standpoint, it has also apparently set its sights on another area farther from its coastlines than the South China Sea and yet somehow still feels entitled to: Benham Rise or Philippine Rise, features of which now sport Chinese names, to the dismaying unconcern of the Philippine government. Did the Chinese ever have it this good and this easy – taking over vast swaths of another country’s territory without so much as a peep of protest from the bereft?
Check out the map and see if the creeping Chinese encirclement of Luzon shouldn’t make Filipinos’ skin crawl: Soon, an impregnable presence in the South China Sea with fortified Chinese islands ringing the region even within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, and on the other side – if allowed by the present Philippine government – Benham Rise also effectively under Beijing’s control. Why is this all right with the once patriotically fervid but now preternaturally timorous men like Roque, Cayetano, or Senate President Koko Pimentel, who, for his part, said he was “not bothered” by the Chinese actions?
Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, is correct: “We are trading away too much, too early and too soon in dealing with China,” he laments. Too much and too often of this ritual bending over is simply hazardous to the Philippines’ health.