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Philippines Independence Day under a Chinese cloud

What an irony that as the Philippines celebrates two historic moments, part of its territory is coveted by the most powerful nation in Asia, and its sovereignty and territorial integrity have to be guaranteed by yet another power which happens to be the most powerful in the world today.

This week began with the 113th anniversary of the day first Philippine President Emilio Aguinaldo cast off the colonial yoke after three and a half centuries as a Spanish colony. It ends on the eve of the sesquicentennial of the birth of Jose Rizal, the First Filipino, he who pioneered the sense that we are a nation, not a collection of tribes and linguistic groupings.

But the week’s papers speak of a fragile sovereign and an unsure nation. We are alarmed over the Chinese claim that they have title over the Spratlys archipelago, asking us to stop exploring for oil in the area, and in fact occupying and arming islands that we have claimed as our own. Our leaders publicly admit that we are militarily helpless against the Chinese, and before we knew it, we were debating whether the United States would honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Agreement that says an armed attack on one party would be deemed an attack on the other.

Suddenly Filipinos find themselves fretting over the fine print: the treaty apparently covers only an “armed attack on the metropolitan territory... or on the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific Ocean.” And then Filipinos rejoice when U.S. Ambassador Harry Thomas Jr. proclaims: “I assure you, in all subjects, we, the United States, are with the Philippines.” He continues: “We are allies. We will continue to work with each other in all issues including the South China Sea and Spratlys.”

President Aquino is right: In this dispute with China, our salvation lies in international law. The post-World War II legal order is built upon this central principle embodied in the United Nations Charter: “All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any states...” The Chinese naval incursions into the Spratlys certainly constitute the use of force against our territorial integrity.

Moreover, the Chinese have already signed the 2002 China-ASEAN Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, under which all parties promised “to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force.”

We can also draw comfort from the fact that we are not the sole objects of Chinese naval feistiness. Japan has filed a formal protest over the Chinese naval exercise right off Okinawa and in the vicinity of disputed islands currently occupied by Japan. Vietnam is up in arms over two successive incidents when the Chinese cut off cables from Vietnamese ships exploring for oil in the South China Sea. Our local rhetoric portrays us as helpless victims and China as the regional bully. Not quite, if you consider that China’s other protagonists are no pushovers: Japan the global economic power and, the other, its historic enemy, Vietnam which won in the war with the United States over the erstwhile South Vietnam.

Why this sudden and high-profile belligerence by a China that has so publicly embraced the ‘Peaceful Rise’ concept? The 2002 Code of Conduct with the ASEAN can be seen as reflecting faithfully the true Chinese intent: suspend all territorial contestation and please just don’t shoot at one another. Why then the bellicose repetition of the Chinese claim of “indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea”? Beijing has made that claim in the past, but now asserts it militarily in actual naval encounters. What was before a statement of principle to be resolved in the long-term under the 2002 Code of Conduct now appears as a concrete program of action.

Perhaps this episode can be seen as a test of wills with the United States. China took umbrage when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton proclaimed during the October 2010 ASEAN Summit that it considered the South China Sea territorial dispute as an international concern, and U.S. spokesmen later referred to the United States as a stakeholder in the dispute. China reacted by saying that it considered the dispute to be a purely regional matter and advised the Americans to stay out of it. China has now stepped up the debate, and basically tests American determination to stay the course. Perhaps China thought that its Peaceful Rise ― apparently a message directed by Beijing to the Western powers not to worry about its rise in economic might ― had been seen by the West as weakness.

In this sense, we are actually mere collateral damage in a larger contest. It is at these moments that we must draw strength from what Jose Rizal had taught us more than a century ago. Rizal said that the students from the Philippines studying in Spain realized that there was something that drew them together, and that they were there not as Tagalogs, Ilokanos or Kapampangans, but as Filipinos ― and thus coopted the label by which the Spanish creole called themselves, and appropriated that label for themselves. They ― Rizal, Del Pilar and company ― were Filipinos.

By Raul C. Pangalangan

(Philippine Daily Inquirer)

(Asia News Network)