The cost of incoherence
Even after a flurry of diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines, the country’s “real friend” China had 287 militia vessels deployed over several features in Palawan’s Kalayaan Islands as of last Sunday. The presence of the Chinese vessels was reported by the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea after a maritime patrol.
The report of the task force prompted yet another diplomatic protest from the Department of Foreign Affairs, whose head Teodoro Locsin Jr. has promised to file a protest daily until Chinese ships are out of the West Philippine Sea.
Beijing has been ignoring the protests, apparently preferring to listen to the pronouncements emanating from Malacañang. Notable among these pronouncements from President Duterte himself is that China is in possession of the West Philippine Sea. Previous reports also pointed to a verbal agreement between the President and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping, allowing the Chinese to fish in the WPS.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque had to clarify both statements and reiterate that the Philippine government was standing firm in asserting its sovereign rights in the WPS, as declared in the 2016 ruling handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
Roque, however, was recently called out by the DFA for saying that Julian Felipe Reef off Palawan, where over 200 Chinese vessels had swarmed beginning in March, was outside the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone. The boomerang-shaped reef lies 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan, well within the country’s EEZ.
With conflicting statements emanating from two key offices in the Philippines, however, Beijing can cherry-pick its preferred pronouncement and act accordingly. Those militia vessels will be in the West Philippine Sea for a long time, driving away Filipino fishermen, collecting threatened marine wildlife and destroying the marine environment. This is the cost of failure to speak with one coherent voice in a matter as serious as national sovereignty.