Mischief in the making
In 1995, three huts on stilts were spotted on Panganiban or Mischief Reef, about 120 nautical miles west of Palawan. The huts turned out to be made by the Chinese, who said these were merely shelters for their fishermen.
Today Panganiban Reef is an artificial island with a Chinese military fort complete with airstrip and a ship dock. It is just 50 nautical miles away from Julian Felipe Reef, a boomerang-shaped coral formation 175 nautical miles away from Palawan, where about 220 Chinese ships have swarmed since the start of the month.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines describes the ships as fishing militias – China’s way of skirting accusations of militarizing its operations in disputed waters. The Chinese government says the flotilla consists mainly of fishing vessels taking shelter – from what is unclear, since the weather has been fine since the start of the month as the dry season begins in this part of the planet.
If Chinese vessels need to take shelter, why not proceed to the nearby Panganiban Reef? In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague awarded the Philippines sovereign rights specifically over Panganiban Reef, Ayungin or Second Thomas Shoal and Recto or Reed Bank, over which the country has exclusive economic rights, and declared Panatag or Scarborough Shoal a common fishing ground. Beijing has ignored the PCA ruling, which is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, and which invalidated its so-called nine-dash-line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.
Because the ship swarm was spotted at the start of the month, it was linked by some quarters to the delivery in Manila of COVID-19 vaccines made by Chinese firm Sinovac Biotech and donated by Beijing. An initial 600,000 doses of CoronaVac arrived on Feb. 28, followed by 400,000 more in March.
While Filipinos are deeply grateful for donations of COVID vaccines from China and the international community, the goodwill generated by Beijing is substantially eroded by the occupation of yet another Philippine reef by Chinese vessels. With Beijing insisting that Julian Felipe Reef is part of its territory, it doesn’t look likely that the ship swarm will leave the reef any time soon. Critics of the Duterte administration’s foreign policy can only lament that a million COVID vaccines is a treasonously dirt-cheap price for another piece of Philippine territory.