When I read that a Chinese vessel rammed a Filipino fishing boat off the shores of Bolinao, Pangasinan, I felt so enraged. Then, I wondered why the incident was not near the Scarborough Shoal, and decided to wait for more information. It did surface a few days later that a HK cargo ship was a primary suspect. The latest report says a number of commercial ships did pass by the area of the incident but there is yet no certainty which ship was responsible. I was immensely relieved that what I suspected at first as a serious provocative incident related to the contentious issue over Scarborough Shoal may, after all, be simply an accident at sea, not normal but not rare either.
At the same time, I spent days reflecting on the moves that Filipinos can take should the incident turn out to be as suspected – a deliberate provocative, bullying act by China. Even though I was upset over a wrong conclusion about the incident, that emotional reaction did soon give way to the more realistic and practical reality confronting Filipinos today. I admit that the general attitude that I perceive over the Scarborough issue falls far short of patriotic requirements. Yes, there has been some level of emotional outpouring – disgust and anger – against China, but nowhere near enough to send a clear, unmistakable message to our giant neighbor that Filipinos will not idly stand by if a part of its territory and the value of its sovereignty are being trampled on.
In contrast, what is emerging is an ambivalent sentiment that is more in keeping of a people with a weak sense of nation-hood. Unity among Filipinos has always been suspect, especially when there is no urgent, unavoidable external cause. It took a few centuries for Filipinos to find relative unity in going against Spain. The Scarborough Shoal conflict has contributed much to awakening some patriotic fervor, but it is scattered and mostly shallow so far. There will be no war that Filipinos will volunteer massively for on the mere threat of an adverse claim over a reef – even if such claim is ridiculously unfair and is an unmitigated act of bullying by a shark over a sardine. China will have to do much more before Filipinos in general from Luzon to Mindanao will feel an outrage capable of turning a peaceful people to become Davids confronting Goliath.
What is doubly frustrating about the unfolding conflict with China is that many of us suspect it has less to do with us than it has to do with the United States. Geopolitics is a good enough reason for China to bully the Philippines. The dynamics of global and superpower competition between the United States and China have placed us, at the moment and for long moments to come, in their exact center. What will China have to gain by claiming a Philippine reef to be theirs? It may seem utterly incomprehensible to many until what Scarborough symbolizes hits home. Scarborough is not just a reef, it is Philippine territory located in the China Sea, a territory stretching from Scarborough to Sulu representing strategic sea lanes for trade or for war, and a territory ascertained to be full of oil and gas beneath its waters with a volume that astounds. Scarborough means security for China. It cannot mean anything less for the United States.
I surmise that if the United States were not so intimately meshed with Philippine interests, meaning that their interests to a large extent in the Asian region are married to Philippine territory, people, resources and politics, China would be seriously in partnership with the Philippines for all sorts of joint development ventures to extract oil, gas and many other minerals found in Philippine land and seas. But China has not been able to have its way for several centuries, afflicted as it had been by its own warring factions, foreign intervention, and the picking up of the pieces when Mao and communism established firm control. Today, though, China has reached superpower status in both trade and armament. It stands shoulder to shoulder with the United States, and may be an inch or so taller if its greater population and central control over its people and resources are taken into consideration. Today, China is flexing its muscles, not necessarily to bully the Philippines, but to send a message to the United States that Asia belongs to China more than it belongs to the United States. It is a necessary message, but it is a dangerous one for Filipinos who have become married to America in more ways than one.
A weak nation has to surrender some, if not most, of its most precious rights, privileges, or demands – whether to China or the United States. Weakness carries a price that is bitter. Yet, that bitterness can become the trigger of a journey to strength. Many times in the history of nations, that bitter pill is not only subservience or submission, it is also war and death. Filipinos cannot forever avoid the bitter part of growing up. Discipline and sacrifice, the bedrock of nation-building, are virtues we must develop in ourselves beyond the natural talents we have in abundance. Let us use the present issues over Scarborough Shoal and China’s warning that we should not build classrooms in an island long occupied by Filipinos as motivation to reflect and resolve these questions I asked in a Facebook Page named “Defending Scarborough, Defending the Philippines” – as follows:
“It is not the wish of Filipinos to wade into conflict with neighbor China. Our roots are deeply connected, and our blood even more. But there is a point when all Filipinos must ask ourselves the question, “What are we without control of our land? Who do we become, brown Chinese?”
The answer to this question will lead us to another question, “How important is it for us to be Filipino, the race born of our homeland, the Philippines, of which Scarborough is part of? Is it important for us to defend our rights over our territory, for ourselves and for our race, those living now and those who will come after us? Is it important enough for us to risk all, if not now, when?”