Who is 'illegal, coercive, aggressive, deceptive' in the South China Sea?
Published: Jun 01, 2024 03:10 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

There are always two sides to every story. It is often your word against mine. Yet whenever conflicts arise between the two parties, it is inherent in human nature to sympathize with the weaker side. It is even more so when the weaker is shrieking with Bambi-eyed innocence. 

In reality, the "innocent" could be the real aggressor. Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. may have tried hard to portray himself and his administration as a knight, daring to charge to the forefront against an "illegal, coercive, aggressive, deceptive" giant, during his Friday opening speech at the ongoing Shangri-La Dialogue, but there is another side of the story, and the "illegal, coercive, aggressive, deceptive" character is the Philippines.

Marcos Jr. threw out a list of international treaties and domestic laws to prove Philippine ownership of disputed waters. Some of them exactly articulate that areas in the west of the 118 degrees east longitude do not belong to the Philippines. The 1898 Treaty of Paris, the 1900 Treaty of Washington and the 1930 Convention Between the United States and Great Britain can prove it. This was also reaffirmed by the Philippine Constitution in 1935.

Take a look at the islands and reefs for which Manila has been yelling that it will not  back down. For instance, Huangyan Dao - located about 117 degrees east longitude - is obviously not within the Philippine territorial boundary. Ren'ai Jiao is located at 115 degrees east longitude, also outside. Guess who has been breaking the status quo to grab territories little by little outside its boundaries while crying China is being assertive.  

On May 9, 1999, the Philippines sent BRP Sierra Madre, a military vessel, to intrude into China's Ren'ai Jiao (which the Philippines calls as the Second Thomas Shoal) and illegally ran it aground under the excuse of "technical difficulties." Many times the Philippines promised to tow away the vessel. However, in the past 25 years, Philippine politicians have conveniently turned a blind eye to this commitment.

Even in the face of the illegal Philippine occupation of Ren'ai Jiao, China showed enough patience by allowing the supply of daily necessities to its grounded warship. This attitude is interpreted as China doesn't want to remove the hulk forcefully, and as the ship was rusty and breaking up, it will disintegrate and the problem will solve itself. 

Manila does no think so and again broke the status quo through sending construction materials used for large-scale repair and reinforcement. This move compelled the China Coast Guard to take necessary law enforcement measures to safeguard its rights, and to maintain status quo. 

And when the old tensions and disputes remain unresolved, the Philippines is eying for creating new flashpoints. 

Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) patrol ships have been stationed within the lagoon of Xianbin Jiao (also known as Sabina Shoal) for more than 45 days. It picked a convenient excuse - "to ensure China does not carry out reclamation activities" there. Yet even PCG spokesperson Jay Tarriela acknowledged that the Philippine side had not documented any activity from the Chinese vessels present in Xianbin Jiao since it deployed its vessel there in mid-April. Nevertheless, the semi-permanent floating platform has been deployed, which seems to be one step away from grounding on the reefs. Does the Philippines intend to replicate the "ship grounding tactic" on Xianbin Jiao, and on more South China Sea reefs? 

The Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) establishes fundamental principles and norms of behavior, such as "the Parties concerned undertake to resolve their territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned." It also stipulates that "the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner." Will Manila be the first country to violate the DOC?

The "gentleman's agreement" to keep the "status quo" in the South China Sea was breached by Manila. The "new model" for handling resupply missions to the Philippine naval vessel BRP Sierra Madre was broken by the Philippine side. Even the Philippines' own scholars and ordinary people largely oppose Marcos Jr.'s successive provocative actions, as they gain no benefits from the resulting tensions. What's more, they are facing the erosion of previously established cooperative fishing benefits and a palpable decline in the sense of stability they once enjoyed.

However, thanks to the remarkable performance by the Philippines, Western narratives are able to sensationalize stories about China's alleged assertiveness. All they highlight is China's coast guard using water cannons against Philippine vessels, without delving deeper into the provocations that led to China's reactions. 

The Philippines is feigning innocent, playing the role of a victim, expressing grievances, and subsequently making an appeal for peace - all of these actions craft an image of vulnerability seeking justice. Is that so? What if you are told that China has never used real force against the Philippines, but the Philippine coastguard has used force to kill innocent Chinese fishermen from the mainland and Taiwan island in 2000, 2006 and 2013? It can be easily googled. 

So the question in the South China Sea is, shouldn't there be a universal standard when evaluating whether a country contributes to or disrupts peace and stability in the region, and whether one is "illegal, coercive, aggressive, or deceptive"?

Manila seems skilled at donning its own version of story. And Western countries fell for it. It does not mean the Philippines' version is the real truth. 

Similarly, when Marcos Jr. was surrounded by a cluster of Western officials, having casual conversations, at the end of the opening ceremony of Shangri-La Dialogue, the authenticity of his popularity is also questionable. Do they genuinely regard Marcos Jr. as a superstar, or do they simply see him as another handy tool?

The author is a reporter with the Global Times. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn