ZAMBALES residents are unhappy with the national government’s weak stance in its row with China over territories at the West Philippines Sea.
In a multisectoral forum sponsored by the Presidential Communications Operations Office and the Philippine Information Agency at the Mansion Garden Hotel, leaders and representatives of various sectors, including mediamen, demanded tangible and more resolute actions on the part of the Philippine government to defend its claim on islands, reefs and shoals in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), particularly Bajo de Masinloc, a rich fishing ground for local fishermen.
The general sentiment was that the Philippines does not back up its territorial claims with a more convincing gesture while local fishermen and their families suffer.
Chinese fishermen and military vessels have maintained their presence at Bajo de Masinloc, or Scarborough Shoal, only some 124 nautical miles away from Zambales, yet the government has “not even lifted a finger, in shameless display of subservience, if not cowardice, to China,” residents present lamented.
“Our fishermen are already dying while trying to earn a living from our resources in the West Philippine Sea. The Chinese destroy their boats, their equipment and their catch; their children are already crying, and what is the government doing about it?” bewailed Laureano Artagame, chairman of the Subic Bay Integrated Fisheries and Aquatic Resources Management Council (Subic IFARMC). “Why can’t the government defend Scarborough, with bolos and spears, if it has to?”
Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, who gave a briefing on the so-called indisputable sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea (SCS), said the Philippine government treats the WPS/SCS issue a matter of national interest because, if left unchallenged, the Philippines could lose up to 80 percent of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
However, he added that while the Philippines condemns China’s aggressive behavior, and that President Aquino has officially put the government’s position at “What is ours is ours,” the government still seeks a peaceful settlement of the disputes and abides by the primacy of the rule of law.
He also clarified that even with the United States making its presence felt in the area and questioning China’s expansive nine-dash line, it does so only because of the threat to freedom of navigation and commerce in the area.
“In the end, we have to rely only on ourselves; nobody can help us but ourselves,” Jose said.
Jose also said the government has filed a case in 2013 for arbitration under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and that it expects to make oral arguments this July.
“The solution over time is arbitration. And if we win, China won’t have any basis in occupying anything within our EEZ,” Jose added.
Residents here, however, brushed off the government’s focus on legal arbitration and diplomatic negotiation, saying that these were ineffective in protecting the rights of Zambaleños to fish and make a living.
Their sentiment about the seeming inaction of the Philippine government on the plight of local fishermen was heightened when Artagame asked that a videotape of a Chinese Coast Guard vessel bombarding Zambales fishermen with water at Scarborough be shown.
The unedited film clip, taken by Subic fisherman Johnny Logo two months ago with a phone camera, was peppered with expletives as he witnessed the Chinese brutality.
“What is the Philippines doing to back its position of what is ours is ours,” demanded Vic Vizcocho, editor of a community newspaper here. “Maybe it’s about time that we consider making a national sacrifice of sending soldiers to the disputed shoal to guard and defend what is ours.”
“What is really President Aquino’s agenda? What is it that he is so aggressive regarding the BBL [Bangsamoro basic law] when he is so passive on the issue of the West Philippine Sea?” a teacher from a local college wondered aloud.
Jaime Mendoza Jr., who works with a port logistics company in this free port, also asked government representatives in the forum why the government cannot make a stronger defense posture.
“What China is doing is a clear case of aggression, yet why are we restricting ourselves to discussions on diplomatic actions? China is apparently gearing up for war. Yet why is it that we are speaking here as if talking about war is taboo?” Mendoza added. (with excerpts from Henry Empeño)