THE Philippines received 600,000 doses of Sinovac’s Covid-19 vaccines last month, and recently, we got another shipment of 400,000. In between those two batches of goodwill, our friendly donor moored over 200 Chinese militia ships on Julian Felipe Reef or Whitsun Reef, just 175 nautical miles from Palawan, well within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It was the Philippine Coast Guard who reported the sighting on March 7.
On March 21, Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted that the government had filed a diplomatic protest. A DFA statement later read: “We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”
The diplomatic protest came after exchanges between defense agencies, including the Department of National Defense, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the National Task Force West Philippine Sea (NTF WPS).
DND Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had strong words for it, “incursion” and that it is a “clear provocative action of militarizing the area.”
On March 21, Lorenzana said, “We call on the Chinese to stop this incursion and immediately recall these boats violating our maritime rights and encroaching into our sovereign territory.”
The defense sector has been so far open in its displeasure. AFP Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana said, “We have our mandate and are capable to perform our missions.”
The two gentlemen’s responses, including their recommendations to the DFA to file a diplomatic protest, come faithful to their sworn duty—to defend Philippine sovereignty.
But here comes the contrast, in no small way embodied by the key players in the executive.
“Meron po tayong malapit na pagkakaibigan...Lahat naman po napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan at magkapitbahay (We have close friendship... Everything can be talked out between friends and neighbors),” assures Presidential spokesman Harry Roque Jr.
It so happened that the friend, through its embassy spokesperson, said that the over 200 ships were merely fishing in the area and had to moor for a while due to bad weather. The PSG photographs, however, showed the weather was just fine and there was no indication of a fishing activity. And they weren’t in Julian Felipe Reef; they were in Niu’e Jiao, the spokesperson said. The friend just played it up smart.
Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said the vaccine shipment is the Chinese Government’s attempt to “soften the blow.” We cannot be seen as getting aid from China and just allowing China to seize our maritime zones,” Carpio said in a TV program.
“If we protest the Chinese incursion of our maritime zones, it would appear we’re like ungrateful because China has given us vaccines. We should not allow ourselves to be placed in this situation,” said Carpio, who was in the team that brought the WPS case to an international tribunal.
Disputes such as what we have now are by their nature protracted and made more complicated because international relations are multilayered. Nations can try to resolve territorial disputes while engaging in economic activities meantime. But it is still in our best interest as a sovereign nation to pursue our diplomatic protest for the simple reason that respect begets respect. We can’t cower with scruples just because we just got the Chinese vaccines.