PH warned vs China treachery as Filipinos’ eyes glued to polls
MANILA, Philippines—China could take advantage of the Philippines’ election period next year to be more assertive in the West Philippine Sea in ways that would alter the status quo in its favor, a maritime law expert warned.
Dr. Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said the Philippines, together with its allies and partners, should be more vigilant in monitoring the situation in the West Philippine Sea during the national elections in 2022.
“With the election will come a power transition, during which it may be difficult for the government to respond to crisis on account of uncertainties in decision-making and decision makers as well,” he said at an online forum hosted by Stratbase ADR Institute on Thursday (Nov. 25).
He said the elections next year coincides with the summer season, during which claimants in the South China Sea operate more freely. Summer, or dry, season in the Philippines is usually between March and May, while the typhoon season begins in June or July.
The Philippine presidential and general elections will be held on May 9, 2022, with the campaign period starting in February. The Constitution mandates that a new president should take oath every June 30 of the election year.
Batongbacal said he sees that in the coming year, China would carry out more activities that would further its “acquisition of control and dominance over large areas of the sea” through the use of grey zone operations like employing maritime militia, “while avoiding the conditions that enable us to take measures for our defense.”
Beijing’s supposedly civilian activities would be backed up with law enforcement operations and expansion of military might.
“Historically, tensions in the West Philippine Sea tend to flare up during the summer months before the typhoon season, and all claimants are able to freely and intensively operate at sea. That happens to coincide with the election season,” Batongbacal said.
“The elections create an opportunity that could be exploited at a time when the government and its responses will be slow and uncertain,” he said.
Batongbacal said the hostile action at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal last week by a China coast guard vessel, which blocked Philippine supply boats and attacked these with water cannon, showed that China “will not lose an opportunity to change the status quo in its favor.” China could do this by blocking supply lines to BRP Sierra Madre, the Philippine military outpost at Ayungin.
China regularly deploys at least one coast guard vessel near the shoal to monitor Philippine activities near BRP Sierra Madre. Chinese vessels have harassed Philippine resupply missions repeatedly.
Batongbacal said China tried to start reclamation work on Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, which is inside Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in 2016, an election year, which was an attempt to militarize the shoal.
“These two represent potential crisis points that can be instigated to occur during the time of power transition, and we therefore must be prepared for it,” Batongbacal said.
“Our security forces must be extra vigilant about activities taking place in these areas claimed by China as we run up to the electoral period,” he said.
It would be a “major setback and major loss” for the Philippines if it could not prevent China’s attempts to further stomp on Philippine sovereignty in its waters.
“We must coordinate closely with our allies and partners to ensure that there are no gaps in our maritime domain awareness and that there is a sufficient flow of information and immediate action can be taken to prevent an induced crisis that could result in either the loss of our presence on Second Thomas Shoal or potential conversion of Scarborough Shoal into an artificial island,” Batongbacal said.
China on Wednesday (Nov. 24) repeated its demand for the Philippines to remove the grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal. This had been rejected by Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who declared that China was the real “trespasser” in Philippine EEZ.
Lorenzana said the Philippines has sovereign rights in the shoal, as supported by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which China ratified, and the 2016 South China Sea arbitration ruling.
President Rodrigo Duterte, however, set the arbitral ruling aside in exchange for loans and investments from China which have yet to materialize even as Duterte’s tenure is ending in several months.
Batongbacal said the next election is crucial because it would determine the direction of the country’s foreign policy.
“If we care about the West Philippine Sea and the natural resources there, we cannot elect a president and vice president who will take a defeatist stance against our increasingly assertive neighbor,” he said.
“We will not, we may not survive, or rather the natural resources and exclusive rights entitlements that we have in the West Philippine Sea will not survive another six years of neglect and lack of adequate protection of indifference and recklessness,” he added.
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