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Bartered

Someone must be mad as hell but can’t vent publicly in his trademark damn-the-torpedoes style.

Or maybe the administration is on damage control and treating the public to a moro-moro to fend off criticism that its policy when it comes to China is one of capitulation.

These are just some of the speculations swirling around that unusual press briefing held on a stormy Monday morning at Malacañang by President Duterte’s spokesman Harry Roque Jr.

Appearing together with Roque, who in another life was regarded as a human rights advocate, were three Filipinos who say the Chinese coast guard has been confiscating their catch and taking the best ones when they fish in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal. In exchange, the fishermen are given noodles, cigarettes and water.

Administration officials describe it as “barter,” but the fishermen’s stories belie this. Barter is a two-way transaction between willing parties, and who engages in barter in the age of bitcoins? Don’t coast guards of the world’s second largest economy have cash? It’s harassment and bullying, pure and simple. It’s like women’s position on rape, including those committed by dates, partners or spouses: if it’s against our will, it’s rape.

* * *

Since Panatag Shoal has appeared in Spanish-era maps of our islands, named Bajo de Masinloc after the first class municipality in Zambales, we can say that Panatag has been the traditional fishing ground of people in the province and in neighboring Pangasinan for centuries. The shoal probably teems with my favorite saltwater fish from Pangasinan, the malaga, a delectable variety of samaral or siganid.

Two years ago the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague declared the shoal a common fishing ground even if it lies well within the Philippines’ 200-mile maritime exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

This was the only aspect of the arbitral ruling that was not completely favorable to the Philippines, which sought a definition of its maritime entitlements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea after China occupied Panatag in April 2012. Our country was unequivocably awarded sovereign rights over Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank.

The ruling clearly stated that no country has control over Panatag, and that China violated Philippine sovereign rights when it prevented Filipinos from fishing in the shoal.

Since attaining prosperity and building up its military power, Beijing’s behavior in the South China Sea, which it claims nearly in its entirety, has been underpinned by the ideas that might makes right and possession is nine-tenths of the law. If there is nothing to possess, Beijing builds an artificial one.

Sadly, the only country awarded by an international tribunal with the right to dispute this stance is on its way to becoming a Chinese satellite.

* * *

I can understand why Beijing is rejecting that sweeping invalidation of its entire nine-dash-line territorial claim in the South China Sea. The area covered by the ruling includes China’s territorial waters and EEZ that clearly overlap at some points with those of Vietnam, which has no love lost for the Chinese, and Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. But these are different cases.

Any map will show that there is no way China’s territorial waters and EEZ can include Ayungin, Panganiban, Recto Bank and even Panatag, which are located in an area we call the West Philippine Sea.

Speaking of cardinal points, the Philippine or Benham Rise is on the country’s eastern seaboard, facing the Pacific Ocean. But we all know this already, so it’s good that the architect of our foreign policy abandoned his earlier flaky threat to jet-ski in Benham.

With critics unmoved by the Benham stunt, perhaps someone experienced an epiphany and decided that the time has come to assert the Philippines’ maritime sovereign rights more aggressively. And so those three fishermen got to tell their story, with the presidential spokesman describing the confiscation of their catch as “unacceptable.”

Didn’t President Duterte declare that in time, he would raise the issue of the arbitral court ruling with China? In fact he already did last year, in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. According to published accounts that were never disputed by Beijing, Xi’s reply was that his country would go to war if Duterte pushed ahead with oil or gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

Since then Duterte has been saying the Philippines can’t afford to go to war with China. But the Vietnamese and Afghans, among others, have shown that firepower alone is not enough to win a war. The Philippine commander-in-chief may be underestimating the patriotism, courage and competence of his troops.

In fact no one is advocating war, since the Philippines already has a powerful weapon to assert its sovereign rights: the ruling by the arbitration court.

* * *

China became prosperous and a military power by doing business with the world. It cannot ignore forever the ruling of the arbitral court, which enjoys United Nations observer status and counts 119 UN states as members plus Palestine and Kosovo.

The Chinese put weight on face, so Duterte is right in not rubbing in the Philippines’ victory in the arbitration case. It is also a sound policy to maintain healthy economic ties and preserve traditionally strong cultural links with China.

So far, however, the friendly tack has failed to protect Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. Instead of leaving Panganiban Reef off Palawan, the Chinese have even fortified what is now an artificial island, according to various reports.

After nearly two years under Duterte, the Chinese by now should at least comply with the declaration of Panatag as a common fishing ground, with no country in control of the shoal.

The stories of the fishermen show that the opposite has been happening. The administration needs resolute action if it doesn’t want to be accused of bartering national sovereignty for noodles and cigarettes.


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