Atin Ito!      

By Artchil B. Fernandez

China, the big bully neighbor, recently is becoming more aggressive in the part of Philippine territory it is trying to steal.  It has intensified its harassment and intimidation of Philippine supply ships to troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal.

In what the international community noted as an escalation of tension in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) China Coast Guard (CCG) ships blasted water cannon and rammed Philippine resupply vessels – Unaizah Mae 1 and M/L Kalayaan last week.  The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said “M/L Kalayaan suffered serious engine damage” as a result of China’s violent act.  These dangerous actions and maneuvers of CCG are serious violation of the COLREGs (Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea).  China is consistent in violating international laws and norms.

The day before the spraying and ramming of resupply vessels, CCG also used water cannons against the vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), namely Datu Sanday, Datu Bankaw, and Datu Tamblot near Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal). The three BFAR ships are civilian vessels in a humanitarian and support mission to provide oil subsidy and grocery packs to over 30 Filipino fishing vessels in the area.

These incidents indicate China is amplifying its gray/grey-zone activities in WPS. Gray/grey-zone activities are coercive actions short of war and this in line with the intensification of military operations other than war (MOOTW), China’s main strategy in WPS.  Lately China is becoming more provocative in implementing its MOOTW.

The crucial question facing the nation today is “How should Filipinos defend the country’s territory?”  Short of war, in what way can the country protect its territorial integrity?  These questions must not be left to security and defense establishment alone.  The defense of West Philippine Sea must include the entire country and all Filipinos should be involved in this endeavor.  West Philippine Sea belongs to the Philippines and its protection is the duty of every Filipino.

In response to the challenge the Filipino nation faces in WPS, civil society groups recently banded together and formed “Atin Ito!” It is a coalition primarily focused on deepening awareness and involvement on issues surrounding the attempts of China to take away that portion of Philippine territory.    What is at stake is not only the present but the future of the country.

West Philippine Sea is part of the country’s territory being claimed by China with its nine-dash-line.  China’s claim encroached 531,000 square kilometers of Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and extended continental shelf, including all fishery, oil, gas, and mineral resources in the area.  Around 80 percent of the country’s EEZ in WPS is being grabbed by China, an area larger than the total land area of the Philippines which is 300,000 square kilometers.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague in 2016 settled the issue by invalidating China’s claim under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas (UNCLOS).  China’s position has no legal and moral standing under international law.  Both China and the Philippines are UNCLOS signatories.

Filipinos cannot and must never give up WPS to China.  Legally, morally, and historically, the area belongs to the Philippines – “Atin Ito!”  Aside from security question, WPS is rich in natural and mineral resources.  Recto Bank which is just off the coast of Palawan has rich deposits of oil and natural gas.

WPS is home to 4,640 square kilometers or 464,000 hectares of coral reefs, where some of the 3,053 species of fish in the Philippines thrive, the 2019 research report of the Biodiversity Management Bureau and the CARE-CaDRES reveals.  In 2022 WPS contributed 275,872 metric tons or 6.36 percent of total Philippine fish production.   Food security of the country is in danger should China succeed in stealing that part of the Philippines.

Aside from food and national securities, allowing China to take away that part of the nation also jeopardizes the country’s energy security, merchant marine and commercial navigation, and environmental security.  Defense of WPS is paramount.

Pushing back China’s aggressive, illegal, and irresponsible actions through diplomacy, building international alliances, rallying global opinion and exposing China as a bad neighbor, an untrustworthy member of the international community should be deepened.  Mobilizing Filipinos by involving them on the issue and exposing China’s lackeys and local supporters is another way to defend and protect WPS.

It must be noted and never forgotten that Du30’s defeatist mentality and unabashed worship and idolatry of China paved the way for the behemoth bully to gain foothold in WPS.  It was during Du30’s rule that China built artificial islands in the area and militarized them.  To this day, the Dutertes and their followers remain the most fanatical supporters of China’s robbery and theft of Philippine territory.

China Coast Guard had been firing water cannons and aiming laser beams to Filipinos ships – supply, research, and fishing vessels, in the area and nothing was heard from the Dutertes.  Sara Duterte had spoken on many issues, including the current war in Gaza and peace talks with rebels but not a word was heard from her on China’s unprovoked and dangerous maneuvers in WPS.  She is obsessed with national security but never said a word against China’s unprofessional and dangerous behavior.

As China intensifies its aggression in WPS, Filipinos must match it by intensifying resistance.  WSP is an integral part of the Philippines.  Its defense and protection should be the overriding concern of all genuine Filipinos.