By Ellen Tordesillas
The latest incident in Scarborough shoal reminds us of the issue of the non-inclusion of the sandbar, also known as Panatag , in the country's baseline which was one of the points of conflict between the Department of Foreign Affairs and Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV in 2008. Trillanes was then in detention
Last Sunday, the Chinese fishing vessels were sighted in Scarborough shoal which is 124 nautical miles from Zambales. The intrusion was confirmed by BRP Gregorio del Pilar, the country's lone modern naval patrol frigate acquired from the US last year, was on its way to Northern Luzon as part of the contingency measures for North Korea's rocket.
BRP Gregorio del Pilar found eight Chinese fishing boats with sizable quantities of endangered marine species, corals, live sharks and giant clams. But it didn't make any seizures of the illegal cargo or arrests of the fishermen.
A VERA Files report by Tessa Jamandre said, " The Philippine Navy's cautious move is in accordance with President Aquino's guidance of "white to white, gray to gray." "White to white" means civilian ships are to deal only with civilian ships, in this case the Philippine Coast Guard to the Chinese Marine Surveillance. "Gray to gray" means navy to navy.
"This directive sprung from the Reed Bank incident last year when China's marine surveillance ship warded off the Philippine commissioned seismic vessel Voyager. The President has said that Coast Guard will take the primary role of enforcing maritime laws."
That's why while China was sending three vessels — Chinese Marine Surveillance ships, the Philippine government pulled out its lone modern naval patrol frigate acquired from the US last year. It sent instead a Philippine Coast Guard search and rescue vessel.
Retired Navy Commodore Rex Robles , who was the deputy commander of the Western (Palawan) Command when the Chinese occupation of Mischief Reef was discovered in 1995, said the leadership did right by pulling out the BRP del Pilar.
But, he said, we should not be deceived by the civilian status of the Chinese surveillance ships. "They are not exactly unarmed," he said.
The Philippines is no match to the military might of China but Robles said "a weak country has weapons that stronger countries do not have." He said the Philippines does not have to limit itself to diplomacy.
"The Philippines can be a lightwing bird against a fire-breathing but slow moving dragon, " he said.
Robles' suggestion brings to mind a news report of the May 23, 1999 incident in Scarborough shoal where the Philippine Navy's BRP Rizal sank a Chinese fishing boat. The Navy's report said , "While the crew of BRP Rizal was preparing for boarding and search operations, the very rough sea condition flung the Chinese into BRP Rizal, causing the fishing junk to sink."
When the Philippines had to define the country's baselines needed to determine our continental shelves for submission to the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, Sen. Trillanes was the first one to file a baselines bill.In his version, Scarborough Shoal was included in the baselines primarily because he said," its distance from Luzon is less than the 125nm limit."
" With this, our country stands to gain approximately 14,500sq nm of EEZ and continental shelf," he added.
The Arroyo government version, which was what became law, designated Scarborough as" regime of islands."
As regime of island, it is still part of Philippine territory but as Trillanes pointed out, Scarborough Shoal is basically a rock and according to para 3 of Art. 121 of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, the regime of islands definition has an exception and that is: "Rocks which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own shall have no exclusive economic zone or continental shelf."
"We would be depriving ourselves of the EEZ and continental shelf of Scarborough Shoal if it would be designated as a regime of islands," he said.
(Update:Trillanes has sponsored the Aquino administration bill on Maritime Zone and Archipelagic Sealanes which would implement the Baselines law. Maybe, without amending the law, there would be a way to correct its inadequacies.)
A DFA official justified the non-inclusion of the Scarborough Shoal in the country's baseline with a technical explanation about protrusions. But the main reason,he said, was they didn't want to provoke China because "what are we going to do if they attack us?"
Greed also was a factor. Foreign Affairs officials also said there was also pressure from Malacanang for them not to displease the Chinese who were dangling big-ticket investments like the NBN/ZTE, Northrail, Diwalwal mining.
The Philippine's weak stance encouraged China to move aggressively in disputed areas within the 200 nautical mile Philippine exclusive economic zone.
Our policy makers should take heed the Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu's advice about the clever combatant not allowing the enemy to impose the will on him.
As Robles said, a militarily weak country is not without weapons.There are many things a fox can do that a lion can't.