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Holding the anchor: the Philippines’ sovereignty remains afloat despite foreign presence

By Kira Jorgio

Manila—Not too long ago, the Philippines-China international relations were unblemished. There was a time when no dispute concerning the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the West Philippine Sea existed, and Filipino fisherfolks continued to enjoy reaping their rightful economic benefits and marine resources in their exclusive economic zone. While this may have been the situation years back, it is painstakingly more and more evident that such harmony is now just a glimpse of history.

It has been six years since the Hague tribunal unanimously affirmed the territorial sovereignty of the Philippines over the contested West Philippine Sea. The tribunal invalidated China’s sweeping claims over the territory, which discussed in detail its lack of basis, both in law and in international customs. It has also been six years during which China has deliberately disregarded the ruling and employed aggressive means to bully the Philippines to submit to its whims.

Given the relatively small and inadequate naval and military power of the Philippines as compared to China, one can say that the means of fighting back is gradually limited. With the citizens afraid of going into war with a superpower country, the Filipino fishermen are left with no choice but to steer away from the reefs and tolerate the foreign presence in the West Philippine Sea.

In an online forum titled “The West Philippine Sea Catch Season 2: Episode 88 "A Non-Military Strategy for the West Philippine Sea,” held on July 2, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Carl O. Schuster took the lead and discussed the current international relations between China and the Philippines, and how the Philippines can assert their territorial rights without resorting to war.

Schuster, former director of operations of the U.S. Pacific Command’s Joint Intelligence Center in Hawaii and a current professor of the Military Science and Diplomacy Program at the Hawaii Pacific University, set the forum with a two-point strategy: 1) using commerce as proof of sovereignty; and 2) reinforcing court of the arbitration ruling.

Much like what Malaysia did with Swallow Reef, the Philippines should likewise turn the Kalayaan Islands into tourist sites. With efforts from the Malaysian government, Layang-Layang Island was converted into a resort, where Swallow Reef can be found. Famous for having one of the most awesome diving reefs on the continent, the island draws hundreds of tourists daily.

Schuster recommended tourism as a means to enhance banking and economic activities within the territory. It would justify judicial and legal enforcement, as well as medical services in the area. These activities signify an exercise of sovereignty and continued presence in the islands that would threaten foreign civilians by drawing international publicity and uproar. “If the world can see what they’re doing, it could buy the Philippines more time to strengthen the military or the coast guard,” he added.

This strategy, as Schuster suggests, would require intensive engineering studies and financial investments. While the return on investment will take roughly three to six years, he says that it is a small price to pay to regain sovereignty sooner.

In relation to the first strategy, it is also suggested that the arbitral ruling be strictly enforced. Manila should be able to invest in its own territory. As a consequence, there will be the presence of tourist facilities and commercial activities that require public services and security. Those services will be considered acts of sovereignty that would bolster the Philippines’ claims over the WPS.

Aside from that, Schuster also suggested ways to combat China’s browbeating tactics without resorting to retaliation. The first is to have the military coast guard as a defense frontline of Filipino fishermen whenever they go to Scarborough Shoal.

On average, the Chinese military injures or kills about 20-30 local fishermen a year. Having the presence of military escorts lessens the likelihood of our locals being harassed and hurt.

Additionally, when the Philippine Coast Guard comes face-to-face with the Chinese Coast Guard, the former could use the opportunity to formally inform the latter that their presence in the West Philippine Sea is a violation of the rights of the Philippines over the coastal waters, and further warn them that if they persist on trampling the rights of the Philippines, a diplomatic protest would again be filed against China.

The second is to have airpower overhead, not to fight but to record and videotape the acts of the Chinese Coast Guard against the Filipinos. And last, it is to improve the Philippine defenses by appropriating a bigger budget for the military, so that they would be more equipped to fight and defend the Filipinos, should the need arise.

This freedom of navigation and overflight operations of foreign naval powers, including naval drills, conducted regularly in accordance with international law and UNCLOS, are the most tangible and effective enforcement of the arbitral ruling.

Perhaps the most utilized tool of the century, social media is a big contributor to gaining publicity and public empathy. Considering how powerful social media can be, Schuster suggested using it to make the whole world aware of the situation on the WPS. A propaganda campaign educating the viewers about the rightful claim of the Philippines and the aggression of China toward the Filipino fishermen would open the eyes of the world.

If done correctly, within just a few months, the Philippines will gain the world’s sympathy, and its allies and other neighboring countries would not hesitate to lend a helping hand to the country. This would also strengthen the call for the United States, with whom the Philippines has a mutual defense treaty, to assist the Philippines with its mission of protecting its territorial integrity and sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea.

It is of paramount importance to the Filipinos and advocates to protect what rightfully belongs to them. The West Philippine Sea proves to be beneficial as there is an abundance of oil, gas, fisheries, and natural resources found within, which in turn, provide a livelihood to thousands of Filipinos. And like any other treasure, poachers will stop at nothing just to get their hands around it. With this in mind, the strengthening of the security measures in and around the WPS should be a priority for every Filipino.

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