DFA Protests Controlled By The US State Department?

THREE weeks shy of his formal inauguration, the pressure on President-elect Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to take a forceful, if not combative, position in the West Philippine Sea begins. Three days before the celebration of the Philippine Independence Day and a day after the visit of US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) under Teodoro Locsin Jr. publicized the filing of a diplomatic protest against China made last April 4 over a sea incident that happened two months prior already. Oddly, the protest’s public release came as the country marks Philippines-China Friendship Day.

The timing raises questions about the motives behind it.

Filing diplomatic protests is customary to express disapproval of another country’s actions deemed inimical to one’s national interests. But the timing of the filing and its release to the public are as important as the act itself. The timing of the protest’s public release is reminiscent of the 2019 MV Green Aura incident when a Liberian-flagged, Greek-owned and Filipino-crewed ship from Thailand en route to China was allegedly harassed by Chinese Coast Guard vessel when the oil tanker purposely veered far off course to pass by the disputed Scarborough Shoal. The incident happened on September 30, but like in an orchestra, only came out in the press in early November as President Rodrigo Duterte attended the Asean Leaders Summit in Bangkok.

The latest Julian Felipe Reef protest by the DFA was in response to the reported massing of Chinese fishing vessels in the feature. While the Philippines’ position is that the reef is part of its exclusive economic zone, it does not actually administer any features in the Pagkakaisa (Union) Banks where it is situated. In fact, in Annex 97 of the Memorial that the Philippines sent to the South China Sea Arbitration Tribunal on March 30, 2014 under the Aquino 3rd administration, Manila already recognized China as the occupant of the reef, although disputed also by Vietnam and the Philippines, as pointed out by International Relations expert Sass Rogando Sasot. So, why is the DFA now making it appear that the Philippines “own” the area? Moreover, for the DFA to demand for China to “immediately withdraw all of its vessels from Philippine maritime zones” is a provocation, even other claimant states including China have not made such demands. Will the DFA also call for the withdrawal of all Vietnamese and American ships also?

In contrast, Vietnam has occupied four features in Union Banks since the 1970s, while China has occupied two since the 1980s. The Philippines, on the other hand, has not followed suit and only named the Julian Felipe Reef in 2008. If the reef is considered a low-tide elevation not within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea of any rock or high-tide elevation appropriated by any claimant, then Manila’s position may hold ground. However, if the low-tide feature is within the 12 nautical mile territorial sea range of a rock occupied by a claimant, then that claimant may have a stronger case.

According to South China Sea expert Dr. Mark Valencia, “if the vessels are moored within 12 nm of them, then they are in a territorial sea around a disputed legal rock claimed by China, the Philippines and Vietnam. Whitsun Reef is also within 12 nm of Grierson Reef — a legal rock occupied by Vietnam but also claimed by China.

“Moreover, if the boats are not fishing, they are not violating any country’s fishing laws. If the Chinese vessels are fishing in the Philippines’s EEZ outside of 12 nm from rocks that both claim, then the boats should cease and desist doing so. But if the boats are not fishing, and as long as they refrain from damaging the environment and stay in China’s own claimed territorial waters, they may be within the law.”

China occupies Hughes Reef while Vietnam occupies Grierson Reef, and both are close to Julian Felipe Reef. On April 8, 2021, Vietnamese Foreign Ministry said that Julian Felipe Reef is within the territorial waters of Grierson Reef. Vietnam has occupied Grierson since 1978 and has expanded it to a four-hectare strategic area complete with helipad, barracks and pier tucked in disputed waters.

Why then does Manila only reserve its protests, especially those that get much domestic and foreign media mileage, to Beijing while sparing Hanoi and other claimants? Vietnam occupies the most number of features in the entire South China Sea, likewise, having its own state-backed maritime militia and continues to upgrade and fortify its occupied features.

Hanoi and other claimants, not Manila, are quick to gain from the spotlight on Beijing’s activities in the flashpoint. Vietnam fishermen increased to 6500 in May 2022 from 4800 a month before, according to the South China Sea Probing Initiative (SCSPI). Indeed, Lorenzana in 2018 also reported that Vietnamese — not Chinese — are the most frequent poachers in Philippine waters. Vietnam is swift to fill the void when Chinese fishermen comply with the annual fishing ban, or when Chinese government vessels leave after diplomatic talks with the Philippines.

For those not careful enough to read the details, the timing of the April 4 protest’s public release on June 9 may also conjure (intentionally?) images of Chinese fishing vessels that continue to operate in the area well into Beijing’s own unilateral fishing ban which is not the case.

Set against the backdrop of strong representations against Chinese presence and actions in contested waters is the meek — almost submissive — attitudes toward US actions inimical to Philippine interests. Has Secretary Locsin filed a diplomatic protest when the US ignored his threat after the US abandoned the Philippines’ claim on Sabah, when the US illegally and dangerously used the Philippine civilian hex code on a US spy plane that flew in the Yellow Sea near China in 2020, or when the US warships illegally crisscross in Philippine internal waters and dare to tell Filipinos we have no right to even ask and even pointed guns at Philippine law enforcers (Tubbataha Reefs).

Many of the news report based their stories on satellite images provided by the Center for Strategic and International Studies-Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (CSIS-AMTI) led by Gregory Poling, but the news report fail to say that CSIS-AMTI is closely linked with US State Department and former Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario’s ADRi (Orchestrated Conflicts in South China Sea by Dr. Dan Steinbock). Moreover, the US allocated $300 million a year to fund propaganda projects against China under the Strategic Competition Act, which is handled by the US Agency for Global Media (USAGM). The agency’s news producing programs were caught working with the CIA.

Sherman is by far the highest ranking US official to visit President-elect Marcos, an indication of America’s interest to revitalize ties and work with the incoming administration. But for the American diplomat to remind the Filipino public that President-elect Marcos is allowed to visit the US “due to his diplomatic immunity” implies that the US still has the right to judge our popularly elected president and subject him to US courts. Is the latest diplomatic protest by Locsin’s DFA against China a concession even if it risks derailing President Duterte’s independent foreign policy and straining ties with the country’s largest trade and development partner? Is this in the best interest of our kababayans’ lives?

Dr. Mario Ferdinand Pasion is director of Phil-BRICS Strategic Studies and the chairman of Nationalist Filipinos Against Foreign Intervention.

Also published in Manila Times. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks. (idsicenter@gmail.com)

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