By ATTY. MEL STA. MARIA
Atty. Mel Sta. Maria
From the Filipino fishermen’s account, the Chinese vessel’s act in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) sinking their boat -- almost killing them -- was deliberate, an aggressive act against the Philippines, endangering our territorial integrity and security. Pursuant to our Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States, an attack on our country shall be deemed an attack on the US and vice-versa "so that no potential aggressor could be under the illusion that either of them stands alone in the Pacific Area."
Though the attack did not technically happen in the "Pacific area," the MDT's unmistakable intent include any violent act against the Philippines, a strategic Pacific country. Therefore, the treaty encompasses any attack by China around the Philippine mainland including its islands, waters, and preferential area within the internationally recognized 200-mile economic zone.
Moreover, the April, 2014, Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) between the US and the Philippines allows, upon prior consent of the Philippines, the increased presence of US military forces, aircraft, ships and equipment on a non-permanent basis. The Philippines can make use of EDCA in the WPS.
It is time for the Philippines to start consultation with the US to determine its mandatory involvement. Surely, the US will welcome this opportunity that can reverse its perceptively waning influence in the Asia-Pacific Region. Besides, US naval/military ships are already passing through the international waters beyond the WPS if only to impress upon China that it cannot arrogate to itself the ownership of the South China Seas in violation of international law.
The response against China need not necessarily mean commencing war. Anyone who espouses that the only alterative is a shooting-conflict is naïve. The situation cannot just be met with a lame executive response like "we will be massacred by China if we fight," “we do not want war,” or "wala tayong magagawa," That is an evasive over-simplification of a complicated situation.
In international law, coordinated measures short of armed-hostilities by the Philippines and the US can be undertaken to prevent further aggression. As a start, the Philippines can formally request the US to consistently and frequently patrol the outer limits of the West Philippine Sea and/or our 200-mile economic zone.
Any US-Philippine collective action will highlight China’s aggression endangering regional peace in Asia.Vietnam, Indonesia, India, Malaysia, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and other G7 nations will likely be supportive, initiating global pressure on China to accede to the WPS Hague Tribunal comprehensive decision in favor of the Philippines.
For the Duterte Administration not to avail of these existing treaty-based US commitments to the Philippines is irresponsible and irrational. "No man is an island." We need the support of friends. And they need our support. Making existing international agreements operational even on a limited basis in the WPS will be to the Philippines’ advantage.
We need not worry about the US not leaving the WPS once the situation stabilizes. Recent history proves that when the Philippines tells the US to go, it will leave just like what happened in Clark and Subic, formerly the two largest US military/naval bases outside its mainland. Unlike China that has island-grabbed our territories based on its 9-dash-line boundary which has been internationally rebuked as historically non-existent, the US honors Philippine territories and sovereign rights.
The government must understand that brushing aside this sinking incident as a “little maritime incident” emboldens China to further bully our country because nothing can prevent it from believing that, expectedly in future transgressions, the Duterte administration’s response will be one of weakness.Toleration of small crimes encourages future bigger ones.
A strong stance against China and in favor of seeking assistance from the US will not be politically damaging to the Duterte administration. The latest survey showed that 84% of the Filipinos trust the US while 60% do not trust China.
In fact, the sinking of the Philippine boat provides the Duterte administration a rallying cause that can galvanize all Filipinos, whether with the administration, the opposition and the indifferent sector, behind the government. President Duterte should not miss this valuable unifying opportunity. He must make the right response this time and serioulsy change his April 2018 declaration "I simply love Xi Jinping."
More importantly, Filipinos are known for their bravery and fortitude. We battled great odds before: the Spanish empire, the mighty USA and imperial Japan. The Philippines must stand up against bully China in accordance with international law.