We should all be on the right side of history

by Ambassador B. Romualdez

BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16) and BRP Tarlac (LD-601) sail in formation during the at-sea portion of Maritime Training Activity (MTA) Sama Sama 2018 | Photo by US Navy/Joshua Fulton

Some of our senators who are still doubtful about the decision of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to allow new Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) sites should realize that now, more than ever, we need to strengthen our ties with the United States to beef up our capability in addressing existing and potential security threats to our nation and people, both traditional and non-traditional, such as cyber and climate change.

Defense Secretary Carlito Galvez said it correctly – the projects under EDCA are intended to develop our defense capabilities and are certainly not intended for aggression; neither should they be taken to mean that we are preparing for war. Undoubtedly, we should be ready to defend ourselves from any eventuality, especially in light of the tense geopolitical situation that could become precarious.

But while we will continue to explore all diplomatic means to resolve issues, we should not also turn a blind eye or a deaf ear to the clamor of the people to stand up to those who attempt to arrogate to themselves what is ours – as seen in the continuing incursion of Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) and militia vessels in areas that are clearly within our maritime territory.

For centuries, Filipino fishermen have relied on the traditional fishing grounds of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, Recto (Reed) Bank, and Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea for their livelihood. But for so many years now, they have been enduring the continuing harassment from Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels, depriving them of their livelihood, very often having to stay away from the resource-rich waters due to “bullying” from Chinese vessels.

Those desperate enough to enter the fishing grounds recount being shooed away, subjected to threats and intimidation, their fishing ropes cut, their boats water-cannoned or worse, attacked, like in June 2019 when a Chinese trawler rammed a fishing boat near Recto (Reed) Bank. If not for the Vietnamese fishing crew that heard their cries for help, the 20 Filipino fishermen drifting in the water as they clung to plastic barrels and pieces of wood from the wrecked fishing boat could have drowned.

As one fisherman put their situation, “We are being forcibly driven away from our own territory. They are making us feel as if we are stealing from our own backyard” – so ironic and deceptive, considering that the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, of which China was a signatory, clearly states that countries have sovereign rights to exploit or conserve natural resources that are within 200 nautical miles of their exclusive economic zone.

“It’s extremely disappointing that some of our former diplomats who are totally uninformed are naively asking for the cancellation of the EDCA – an agreement whose constitutionality has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. Senator Koko Pimentel had the right frame of mind when he said that while he may disagree with EDCA, the Philippines as a sovereign nation is “free to enter into treaties and agreements which we believe are, or will be, good for us.”

According to a report by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Chinese Coast Guard vessels have patrolled key areas in the West Philippine Sea, with their presence, detected almost every day in 2022. The Washington-based think-tank also noted the presence of the CCG in areas near Vietnamese and Malaysian oil and gas sites.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has filed numerous diplomatic protests over the continued incursion of Chinese vessels – as many as 77 under the administration of President Bongbong Marcos, with 10 of them filed in the first two months of 2023.

In fact, the Philippines is not the only country complaining about intrusion from the Chinese Coast Guard and other vessels. In 2021, Malaysia summoned the Chinese ambassador to protest the presence of Chinese vessels within Malaysia’s exclusive economic zone. Vietnam and Indonesia have also accused China of intrusion in areas where gas and oil exploration activities are being conducted, such as in the Natuna Sea.

It’s extremely disappointing that some of our former diplomats who are totally uninformed are naively asking for the cancellation of the EDCA – an agreement whose constitutionality has been affirmed and reaffirmed by the Supreme Court. Senator Koko Pimentel had the right frame of mind when he said that while he may disagree with EDCA, the Philippines as a sovereign nation is “free to enter into treaties and agreements which we believe are, or will be, good for us.”

Some agree with Senator Risa Hontiveros’ statement that we must forge security agreements with other countries to defend the Philippines and maintain peace and security in the West Philippine Sea.

“A security agreement can serve as a defensive framework that would provide for joint patrols and training of our troops so we are prepared to work as part of a team should tensions escalate,” she said, also noting the support shown to the Philippines by members of the international community when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel pointed a military-grade laser at a Philippine Coast Guard vessel in Ayungin shoal.

In fact, the Philippines is looking at multilateral cooperation with countries such as Japan as well as Singapore, and Vietnam not only in terms of enhanced security but economic and other areas as well. The Philippines, the US, Australia, and like-minded countries are seriously studying the possibility of joint maritime exercises to enhance their collective capability to maintain security and ensure the freedom of navigation in international waters.

Those against the MDT, the VFA, and EDCA should understand that the Philippines entered these agreements not to be embroiled in war but as part of our defense strategy. The fact is, 90 percent of Filipinos all over the world totally agree with the President’s move to forge defense agreements with like-minded countries. Clearly, he is on the right side of history – like all of us should be.

Email: babeseyeview@gmail.com

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