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‘Flip-flop on China may lead to crisis’

CONFUSING remarks by President Rodrigo Duterte about Philippine claims in the Scarborough Shoal and Benham Rise could bring about a crisis in the country’s relationship with its long-time ally, the United States, and other security allies, including Australia, Japan and South Korea, an analyst said Sunday.

Stratbase ADR Institute Inc. trustee and program convener Renato de Castro warned that in the near future the Philippines could be downgraded to the weakest link among other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Duterte’s recent remarks on Benham Rise and Scarborough Shoal reflect a change in Philippine policy, shifting it from balancing China to appeasing it, De Castro said.

He added that Duterte’s move to cut ties with long-time allies and depending on a new master such as China do not sit well with the concept of an independent foreign policy, particularly given China’s excessive claims in the South China Sea.

In the last week, reports indicated Chinese activities in Scarborough Shoal and in Benham Rise.

The state owned Hainan Daily reported that China plans to build the first environmental monitoring station in Scarborough Shoal, off the coast of Zambales province.

The Philippines sought  clarification but China denied the report and noted that Beijing values its renewed friendship with Manila.

President Rodrigo Duterte
During the previous weeks, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that a Chinese survey ship was seen in the Benham Rise which lies in the eastern part of the Philippines on the Pacific Ocean, where there is no island or country nearby.

But China maintained that it respects the Philippines’ ownership of the resource-rich waters and that Beijing was only exercising its right of freedom of navigation.

A professor and a maritime expert Jay Batongbacal slammed China’s explanation, however, noting that the “criss-cross or back-and-forth-pattern” of the Chinese ship as reported by Lorenzana does not look like an exercise of freedom of navigation.

“For China to correctly claim that its ships were merely exercising navigational rights and freedoms, its vessels must have moved from one place to another in a regular and efficient pace. It would be best if the ship also followed the usual navigational routes through the Benham Rise region like any other foreign vessel. In those cases, it may be said that the ship was merely exercising navigational rights and freedoms, and China had the right to do so even within Philippine waters because it is in accord with international law,” Batongbacal said.

“But if it is shown that the Chinese vessel did not simply move from one place to another along the usual navigational tracks, but instead either took an unreasonably long time or followed an irregular route with patterns such as those described above, then the Philippines may have reason to complain,” he added.

Asked about Chinese activities in the South China Sea, Duterte said there was nothing the Philippines could do if China started building structures on Scarborough Shoal. 

De Castro said this remark would give the US, Australia, Japan, and South Korea the wrong impression.

“Given the policy of the government right now... how do you think the US and its allies would look at the Philippines? We might be the weakest link in this alliance,” he said.

The defense and national security concerns in the wake of recent reports of Chinese activities in Benham Rise will be tackled when the Senate resumes sessions on March 29, Senator Win Gatchalian said Sunday.

Gatchalian, chairman of the Senate committee on economic affairs, cited the need to hold another hearing to paint a clearer picture of the facts as the lawmakers explore long-term strategies to uphold and defend the country’s sovereign rights. With Macon Ramo-Araneta

Topics: President Rodrigo Duterte , China , Scarborough Shoal , Benham Rise , United States , Australia , Japan , South Korea , Stratbase ADR Institute Inc. , Renato de Castro
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