Jun 032013

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While the attention of the Philippines has been focused on its conflict with Taiwan over the killing of a Taiwanese fisherman by the Philippine Coast Guard on May 9, little notice has been given to the arrival, just the day before, of three Chinese naval ships at the Ayungin Reef (Second Thomas Shoal), the gateway to the oil and mineral rich Reed Bank, just 105 nautical miles from Palawan Island, within the 200 mile exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.

This undated handout photo released by the Philippine Government on May 23, 2013 shows an aerial view of BRP Sierra Madre, a 100-metre (328 foot) amphibious vessel built for the US in 1944 and acquired by the Filipino navy in 1976, grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands. A handful of marines living on a World War II-era ship that is grounded on a remote, tiny reef is the Philippines’ last line of defence against China’s efforts to control most of the South China Sea. The soldiers are stationed on Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands aboard a former US tank-landing vessel that was deliberately abandoned there to serve as a base, according to their former commander, Juancho Sabban. AGENCE FRANCE PRESSE PHOTO / Philippine Government

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei confirmed the presence of the Chinese government vessels – two marine surveillance ships and one naval frigate – in the Ren’ai Reef (Ayungin Reef) which Hong claims is part of the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) over which China has “indisputable sovereignty.” Hong added: “It is beyond reproach for Chinese boats to carry out patrols in these waters” even though it is more than 600 miles from the nearest Chinese port.

In a press conference on May 23, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said that the Ayungin Reef is guarded by a small contingent of about a dozen marines aboard the BRP Sierra Madre, a WW II era vessel that was intentionally sunk on the northwest side of the shoal in 1999 to serve as the Philippine marine base. The marines are equipped with arms and battery powered radios as well as a small generator to cook their food, which is regularly delivered by boat.

The Chinese ships are threatening to impose a blockade to prevent the Philippine marines guarding the Ayungin Shoal from receiving fresh supplies, part of China’s “cabbage strategy” (see below). But Secretary Gazmin declared that he will not pull out his marines from the area. “We will fight for what is ours up to the last soldier standing,” he vowed.

President Benigno S. Aquino IIII backed his defense chief in his speech at an official ceremony to mark the Philippine Navy’s 115th anniversary. “We have a clear message to the world,” he said:” The Philippines is for Filipinos, and we have the capability to resist bullies entering our backyard.”

But China has entered the “backyard” of the Philippines before. Successfully.

In 1994, China occupied the Mischief Reef, which is just 130 nautical miles from Palawan Island, while the Philippine Navy was not patrolling the area because of the monsoon season. When the Philippines protested the occupation, China explained that it was just building temporary shelters to protect its fishermen from the monsoon rains. In 1999, the Philippine government protested that the structures the Chinese built on the reef resembled a military installation more than a shelter for fishermen. China ignored the protest.

Mischief Reef AFP

The Philippines decided not to destroy the military fortifications on the Mischief Reef for fear that it would escalate the conflict into a war.

In April of 2012, the Philippines and China had a two month standoff in the Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) – located just 125 miles from Zambales – after a Philippine Navy frigate, the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar, boarded Chinese fishing vessels that had trespassed on the shoal. After discovering that the fishermen had illegally collected corals, giant clams and live sharks, the Philippine Navy men sought to arrest them. But they were blocked by Chinese maritime surveillance ships which freed the detained Chinese fishermen and their illegal cargo.

At one point in the standoff, the Philippine Navy had two ships facing off against 90 Chinese vessels which pro-China Senator Antonio Trillanes claims he succeeded in getting China to reduce by half.

The tense standoff continued until June of 2012 when the US brokered an agreement for Philippine and Chinese ships to leave the Scarborough Shoal. Unfortunately, only the Philippines complied with the agreement. China later claimed that it was not bound by the agreement because it never actually signed any written agreement to leave the Scarborough Shoal, or what China calls the “Huangyan Island”.

Instead of engaging in “smile diplomacy” to consolidate its illegal occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, China instead doubled down on its aggressive posture. In July of 2012, China announced that it had created the Sansha City prefecture, with its own military garrison, vested with jurisdiction over the entire 1.2 million square kilometers of the South China Sea including all the Spratly Islands which China’s Communist government claims it owns because they are all located within the “9 dash line” on a map of the South China Sea created by a mapmaker in Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government in 1947.

In an article which appeared in the Foreign Policy magazineon August 3, 2012, Robert Haddick  describes the bind that China has placed the US in (“Salami Slicing in the South China Sea”). . He explains that both the global and U.S. economies depend on freedom of navigation through the South China Sea where $5.3 trillion of global trade passes through, $1.2 trillion of which passes through U.S. ports.


“A salami-slicer puts the burden of disruptive action on his adversary. That adversary will be in the uncomfortable position of drawing seemingly unjustifiable red lines and engaging in indefensible brinkmanship. For China, that would mean simply ignoring America’s Pacific fleet and carrying on with its slicing, under the reasonable assumption that it will be unthinkable for the United States to threaten major-power war over a trivial incident in a distant sea,” Haddick writes.

Haddick adds: “If sliced thinly enough, no one action will be dramatic enough to justify starting a war. How will a policymaker in Washington justify drawing a red line in front of… a Chinese frigate chasing off a Philippines survey ship over Reed Bank, or a Chinese infantry platoon appearing on a pile of rocks near the Spratly Islands? When contemplating a grievously costly war with a major power, such minor events will appear ridiculous as casus belli. Yet when accumulated over time and space, they could add up to a fundamental change in the region.”

When I wrote about China’s “creeping invasion” of the Philippines in the past, some pro-China apologists were quick to charge that I was exaggerating and distorting China’s position. Below is the English translation of the Beijing TV interview of China’s “well known military expert” Major General Zhang Zhaozhong, which appeared in the May 28, 2013 issue of the China Daily Mail.  In this remarkable interview, General Zhaozhong openly discloses China’s strategy to recover all the “Chinese islands and reefs illegally occupied by the Philippines”.


TV host: “Well, we have watched the footage and now let’s look at the big screen that shows the Chinese islands and reefs illegally occupied by the Philippines. All of us should remember that counting from the north, there are the Beizi Island, Feixin Island, Zhongye Island, Xiyue Island, Shuanghuangzhou Shoal, Mahuan Island, Nanyue Island and Siling Reef.

What one has stolen has to be returned. No matter how long the Philippines have illegally occupied those Chinese islands and reefs, I believe that it cannot change the fact that those islands and reefs are inherent Chinese territories. However, what shall we do to counter those rude and barbarian acts of the Philippines?”

Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong: “What should we do about those islands and reefs? I think that in the main we have done some things relatively successfully in dealing with the Philippines. Since the 1990s, the Philippines has done quite a few illegal and irrational things in its attempt to turn the Huangyan Island (Panatag Shoal) into its territory by means of presidential order, domestic legislation, and so on.

Each time our Ministry of Foreign Affairs protested, but it refused to listen. In the meantime, it was busy doing this and that, such as sunk a boat there and conducting lots of patrols there. By April, 2012, an incident finally took place that it took initiative to detain Chinese fishermen by force; it sent troops to detain at gun point the Chinese fishermen who entered the lagoon to carry out normal fishing.

Since then, we have begun to take measures to seal and control the areas around the Huangyan Island, seal and control continuously up till now. In the over one year period since then, there have been fishermen in the inside. Our fishermen are often there because there is lot of fish there. Fishermen go there in large ships and then sail small boats in the lagoon to fish. They can have shelter in the lagoon when there is a typhoon.

The fishermen conduct normal production there. In the area around the island, fishing administration ships and marine surveillance ships are conducting normal patrols while in the outer ring there are navy warships. The island is thus wrapped layer by layer like a cabbage. As a result, a cabbage strategy has taken shape.

If the Philippines wants to go in, in the outermost area, it has first to ask whether our navy will allow it. Then it has to ask whether our fishery administration ships and marine surveillance ships will allow it. Therefore, our fishermen can carry out their production safely while our country’s marine rights and interests as well as sovereignty are safeguarded. Is that not satisfactory?

We can adopt this method elsewhere. We have not resorted to war and we have not forced the others to do anything, have we? You have invaded and then left. You have violated Chinese law and China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, haven’t you? Why did you point your guns at our fishermen? As you have first violated the law and pointed your guns at our fishermen, you would never be allowed to enter the area.

We should do more such things in the future. For those small islands, only a few troopers are able to station on each of them, but there is no food or even drinking water there. If we carry out the “cabbage” strategy, you will not be able to send food and drinking water onto the islands. Without the supply for one or two weeks, the troopers stationed there will leave the islands on their own. Once they have left, they will never be able to come back.

For many things, we have to grab the right timing to do them. Over the past few years, we have made a series of achievements at the Nansha Islands (the Spratly Islands), the greatest of which I think have been on the Huangyan Island, Meiji Reef (Mischief Reef) and Ren’ai Shoal (Ayungin Shoal).

We have gained quite satisfactory experience about the ways to recover the islands and reefs and defend them. For the Nansha and Xisha (Paracel) Islands, we have established Sansha City to administrate them. That was a good step we have taken.

The next step will be the strengthening of power and authority in implementing our law in conduct our administration. The further next step shall be the vigorous development there, including the development of economy, tourism, marine fishery and marine protection.

We have to do much more work there, and coordinate various efforts. We should not rely only on military effort. In the military perspective, fighting is the last resort while before it there must be production on a large scale and with high enthusiasm and large-scale production on the sea. That is why I say that we have to create such an environment and atmosphere.”

Well, there you have it, straight from the lips of China’s military expert, General Zhaozhong.  Soon, he predicts, China will be bringing in tourists from the Sansha City prefecture to visit Mischief Reef,  Scarborough Shoal, Ayungin Reef, and all the other “Chinese islands and reefs  illegally occupied by the Philippines” for centuries, now liberated from those “rude and barbarian Filipinos”.

(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).

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Tags: Ayungin Shoal , China , Features , Global Nation , West Philippine Sea

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