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Brainstorm: The Next Generation | Recto Bank is ours! Now what?

The incident between the Filipino fishing boat “Gem-Ver” and the Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 in the area of the Recto Bank of the West Philippine Sea last June 9, 2019 has sparked a lot of controversy.

On one side, the President and his administration have received a lot of flak from critics in media and social media accusing them of everything from failing to protect our fishermen to kowtowing in fear to the whims of Imperial China while, on the other hand, supporters of the administration have been echoing the administration’s statement on the need for a thorough investigation while lambasting the critics for trying to goad the President into declaring war against China. The barbs from either side, especially in social media, have been scathing and vitriolic, to say the least.

The situation amplifies the observation that people have much less inhibitions against insulting and vilifying others when doing it on a keyboard. I guess this is because the victims of such cyber-mudslinging seem less human on a computer screen than in real life.

Whether it is helpful or just muddles the issues further, the latter being more likely, politicians from all sides of the political spectrum have jumped on the bandwagon releasing statements, some of which seem calculated more towards self-aggrandizement rather than from an honest concern for the plight of the twenty-two fishermen.

There have been speculations upon speculations and conclusions based on such speculations to the point that it is already difficult to see what is fact, what is speculation, and what is outright fiction.

Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who deserves the most credit for being the moving force behind the 2016 Arbitral Tribunal Award in the South China Sea Arbitration rejecting China’s expanded claims over territories in the West Philippine Sea, gave his view on the issues though I have a few misgivings about some parts of it.

I do not know if what I read was an accurate account, but it seems strange to me that he began with saying that it was “HIGHLY LIKELY” that the ship involved was a Chinese maritime militia vessel and that the incident “MAY SIGNAL” the start of a new “gray zone” offensive by China citing what happened to Vietnamese fishing boats in the Paracels, but then proceeded to conclude already that “The Chinese maritime militia vessel, under the command of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), prevented the crew of F/B GEM-VER from exercising their sovereign right to fish in the exclusive fishing ground of Filipino fishermen” and that this was the “first time that a Chinese maritime militia vessel rammed another vessel”.

The jump from “HIGHLY LIKELY” and “MAY SIGNAL” to apparent certainty is quite a leap amounting to speculation suddenly becoming a conclusion.

I hope it will not add to the cacophony of unsolicited opinions on the matter, but I think, the situation can survive one more, i.e., mine.

First, the incident involved a PRIVATE Filipino fishing boat and a PRIVATE (unless proven otherwise) Chinese vessel. There is, as yet, no definitive showing that this was a state sponsored act of aggression against another state. The involvement of the two (2) governments is in representation of their respective citizens because, generally, private individuals do not have legal personality to make claims under international law.

Second, except for the certainty that the Filipino fishing boat was hit by the Chinese ship causing it to sink, the details of how it really happened, whether it was intentional or not, whether the Chinese vessel was really maritime militia, and the like, are hazy at best compounded further by speculations, suspicions and conspiracy theories, as well as by apparent changes in the statements of some witnesses which has led to even more suspicions and speculations.

Third, what does appear to be clear, despite the conflicting versions of what happened, is that the Chinese vessel abandoned the Filipino fishermen after their boat sank. This is truly something that the crew and owners of the Chinese ship should be made to answer for and something that the Philippine government should strongly demand for the Chinese government to act upon by penalizing and compelling the said crew and owners to answer for the damages caused to our countrymen.

Fourth, as far as the Philippines is concerned, WE OWN RECTO BANK and we have the 2016 arbitral award as well as the definition of our Exclusive Economic Zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) to back it up. However, after the award was issued, China formally REJECTED it and has maintained its stand since then. Whether we believe their position to be reasonable or not, it is, nonetheless, their position.

Unlike a local court decision that is subject to execution, we do not have the coercive means to enforce the arbitral award by force. We have to rely on pressure from the international community for China to respect the ruling. This does not mean that the Philippines should just bow to China with its tail tucked between its legs, it just means that while we should strongly maintain our claims and rights over Recto Bank, we should do so cautiously. On this, we can capitalize on the fact that China is trying to shed its authoritarian image by trying, emphasis on TRYING, to present itself as a benevolent and friendly nation.

Fifth, let us sincerely thank the crew of the Vietnamese fishing boat who rescued our fishermen. Thanking them, then telling them that they were not supposed to be there and then thanking them again, just makes us look like Indian givers.

In ending, there are just too many IFs. If it was intentional, if the ship was maritime militia, if China is establishing a new “gray zone”, if China is being a bully again. We just have to be sure about the IFs so that we can make the proper calibrated response.

We have to be PASSIONATE about protecting our territory and our people but we have to be SOBER about how we go about doing it.

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