Fri, 03 Feb 2023

"A HISTORIC visit" was how news reports described US Vice President Kamala Harris' trip to Palawan on November 22. Harris is the first and highest-ranking US government official to visit the island province, the most proximate to the maritime areas of high tension caused by the contentious activities there of Chinese military. It was her last stop during her three-day visit to the Philippines. Newscasts and Manila-based broadsheets made it their top story together with her meeting with President Marcos Jr. and his Cabinet before she flew to Palawan.

Speaking with local officials in Puerto Princesa City and visiting some communities, Harris reiterated the commitment of the United States to the Philippines, its oldest ally in Asia, particularly in defending the West Philippine Sea (WPS). Rappler cited observers who said the visit signaled a revival of US-Philippine ties, which had declined under the Duterte administration.

The encounter on November 20 between the Philippine Navy and a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel raised questions about its timing. Ahead of Harris' scheduled arrival on the same day, the Armed Forces of the Philippines' (AFP) Western Command reported that the CCG had forcibly seized a floating object from Naval Station Emilio Liwanag (NSEL) whose personnel were attempting to tow the piece of debris ashore. According to the NSEL, a CCG vessel blocked its path and sent smaller vessels to cut the line attached to the debris. The incident happened near Pag-asa island in Palawan.

GMA-7 reported the incident as its top story in the November 21 edition of 24 Oras. The report included a police report that cited the testimonies of residents, who heard explosions from nearby Subi Reef, and felt the ground shaking after the maritime altercation.

In separate interviews with the media, Ariel Carlos, Municipal Information Officer of Kalayaan town in Pag-asa, said the debris was probably from a Chinese rocket, as it looked similar to debris previously retrieved in the waters of Busuanga, Palawan. Casilao added that an investigation is underway to establish the origin of explosive noises heard, checking out reports that these were caused by artillery fire from Chinese installations in Subi Reef.

Media followed up with President Marcos, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), all of whom said that China needed to explain what happened. Marcos, in particular, questioned why the explanation that the Chinese Embassy in Manila publicized was "more benign" than the Philippine Navy's report. The Chinese version of the story said the debris was retrieved by the CCG after a "friendly consultation" with Philippine forces at sea. The Department of National Defense (DND) said it is standing by the AFP report.

Meanwhile, the DFA confirmed that it had sent a note verbale to Beijing on November 24, asking for clarification about the incident. Responding to media questions, Sec. Enrique Manalo said the note verbale was not technically a "diplomatic protest" yet, and that the Philippine government would decide its next step depending on how Beijing responds. Ma. Teresita Daza, DFA spokesperson, told the media via Whatsapp that 189 diplomatic protests against China have been filed this year, 61 of them under Marcos' administration.

Some sources found the government response inadequate. TV Patrol featured the social media posts of UP Prof. Jay Batongbacal, lawyer and maritime expert, emphasizing that the Philippines was well within its rights to retrieve the debris under the international law of salvage. He added that the Philippines should protest China's abusive behavior at sea "that continues to fly in the face of international law."

The Philippine Daily Inquirer cited a similar call from Ronnel Arambulo, spokesperson of the Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas. Arambulo correctly observed that if Philippine military forces are easily subdued by Chinese militia, small municipal fisherfolk become even easier targets of harassment.

Some reports did point out that the incident happened days after the bilateral talks between Marcos and Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Manila Bulletin reported that Clarita Carlos, National Security Adviser, had doubts about Xi's promise to "hold constructive engagement and critical dialogue," as the incident in Pag-asa is proof of China's continuous harassment of Filipinos. The Philippine Star cited former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio's point that it is only Beijing with its claims in the South China Sea that has been "bullying" Southeast Asian countries - a reaction to the Chinese Foreign Ministry's statement that the Philippines and China should "reject all acts of bullying" and pursue "friendly consultation" in dealing with maritime disputes.

It remains to be seen how strongly Marcos will pursue this matter, whether he would take a more assertive stance against China's incursions. His predecessor had taken a more submissive posture, actually kowtowing to Beijing.

So far, media coverage of the West Philippine Sea and the tension arising from various encounters has not changed, mainly recording official statements and individual reactions and protests by various organizations.

In ONE News' The Big Story, anchor Roby Alampay noted that high-level visits such as Harris' are usually viewed from the lens of the country's capital. To draw out the perspective of communities on the ground near the WPS, he and co-anchor Maricel Halili interviewed Edicio dela Torre, president of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM). Dela Torre said locals, particularly fisherfolk, do not care as much about geopolitical talk. For them, what's most important is their capacity to fish freely, without worrying about diminished supplies caused by foreign fishing vessels.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.'s administration has drawn from the ranks of those who served the Duterte administration. Not surprisingly, there has been little change that can set apart his past five months in office from his predecessor. With one exception: Marcos has renewed Philippine relations with the US, departing dramatically from Duterte's hostility to the country's primary and longest-standing ally. This should make some difference in the WPS. Hopefully, Marcos has also set aside the kind of accommodation of Beijing and the commercial pressures that have not entirely served the interests of the Filipino.

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