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Our line in the sand

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by Erik Espina

As predicted on this space in 2016, Scarborough Shoal (SS), otherwise known as Panatag Shoal, would be physically taken over by China. This past week, Communist Party Secretary General Xiao Jie, announced there would be monitoring stations built in six islands and reefs, including SS. Hainan Daily newspaper seconded the posting as “Among the government’s priorities for 2017.” Recent developments, however, deny these statements regarding the disputed shoal. Perhaps a case of “one step backwards” and later, “two steps forward”? The telegraphed declaration, likely, a trial balloon on Philippine reaction, to determine resolute opposition or even a boiling point, if any? This strategy, a departure from Chinese template applied in the West Philippine Sea of “Build first, talk later.” Note, maritime encroachments of Chinese white ships began in 2012, enforcing prohibitions on Filipino fishermen on SS.

China does not act by accident. Developments in the Philippine strategic landscape, specifically West Philippine Sea (WPS), I suspect, were all along part of China’s patient, even hibernating ambition. Sun Tzu guides: “The bow is stretched, and the arrow released at the most propitious moment.” In 1992, US military facilities were voted out the country by our Senate. This awoke the sleeping tiger, given the emerging and changing balance of power and politics in East Asia.

Perilous consequences are on the horizon due to the undaunted creeping invasion of China in WPS. Beijing has studied the calculus of our state responses limited to the filing of diplomatic protests and announced state helplessness as a mode of tentative resistance? Since we readily welcome Chinese grants and aid? Serious recalibration of signals we send is required. Beijing reads our responses as “creeping accommodation.” Chinese exploration on Benham Rise was never “innocent,” but protracted, and only to be expected. More disturbing reports from Beijng advance that the Philippines was once a province of China?

While we openly proclaim inability to wage war against a behemoth, the Damocles sword dangles – Where do we draw the line? Where/ when do we make a principled stand? Will an incident in SS be an invitation for war, we did not initiate? This did not transpire with Vietnam over a naval shoot-out, or Indonesia arresting Chinese poachers and burning their ships, etc. Is China ready to go to war over an incident? How will the world view and respond to such bullying? During PNoy’s term he consulted then Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on WPS. The latter counseled, “We cannot do anything Mr. President. We must make a stand. Perhaps 200 or 2,000 soldiers may die, but what can we do? For as long as, we did not start the confrontation. It is what it is.” Panatag is the line in the sand. While we disdain war, there are duties and consequences to preserving territorial sovereignty and more, our “self-respect.”

PERSONAL: Belated 72nd Birthday greetings to President Rodrigo Roa Duterte. May you find, in your watch, more loyal workers in government!

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