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Publication Date : 31-12-2013


When Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning sailed into South China Sea last month, Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr, the man who governs the Philippine town within the contested Spratly Islands, was the least bothered.

Apparently, Bito-onon's town of Kalayaan on Pag-asa Island—among contested territories just off the Philippines' western province of Palawan—remains largely untouched by the chatter in high places. 

For the local chief, headline-making exchanges among diplomats and generals “upstairs” remain mostly just words—rhetoric often heard but which rarely really mean anything.

“Actually, if you go there, fishermen from Hong Kong, Hainan (Chinese province), Vietnam, Malaysia go about their usual business casually, even fishing side by side at the reef.  But if you read the papers, you see that [officials] just don't stop talking, as if war will begin tomorrow,” said Bito-onon.

“People can go fishing.  They even exchange signals with Chinese fishermen who would approach to ask if there is pawikan (sea turtle) for sale,” the mayor said casually, making reference to the endangered species that remain hot commodity to poachers.

The mayor spoke by phone from Palawan's capital Puerto Princesa, where he stays to transact government business he is unable to do in his town owing to distance and limited infrastructure. 

Once a month, he travels to Pag-asa Island—around 52 hours of travel by sea from the city or two and a half if he catches the military plane—and spends around two weeks at a time.

“If you ask about the impact on the ground, there's still none.  But up there [in government], in terms of technicalities, diplomatic implications, you see it come out in the papers.  There's a show of fighter planes, weapons... Sometimes, just looking at them gets irritating,” said the mayor, laughing as he spoke. 

Sure, there have been incidents: Bito-onon recalled how a Chinese maritime surveillance ship tracked a Filipino fishing vessel near the Ayungin Shoal and called out through a bullhorn: “Go back to the Philippines.”

In May, a boat carrying the mayor himself, with a group of some 200 people, was trailed by Chinese patrol vessels during a visit to the shoal, located some 100 nautical miles (185.2kms) from Pag-Asa Island and close to Chinese-occupied Mischief Reef.

But for Bito-onon, it's no big deal.

“I am calm because, maybe it's the experience. I have been going back and forth to Pag-asa lsland in the last 15 years,” said the mayor of the town established in 1978 as a separate Palawan municipality.
Such counterintuitive yet honest take on Asia Pacific's biggest flashpoint stands in stark contrast with how top Philippine officials regard the unresolved dispute with China: a threat to the country's sovereignty and national security so compelling, it sought the United Nations' intervention earlier this year and began to build up  external defence with its main ally, the United States.

And to assert the country's claims to the resource-rich territories, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III last year renamed part of the South China Sea within the country's 200-nm (370-km) exclusive economic zone as the West Philippine Sea, encompassing the Scarborough Shoal and parts of the Spratlys.

The mayor, however, is leaving the tough talk to the pros.

“If the aircraft carrier is on its way to Pag-asa, maybe China just wants to put it on display. Of course, it's their first aircraft carrier,” Bito-onon said in half-jest.

“I don't believe that they will use their aircraft carrier to attack our islands. That will be too much... an overkill,” he said.

If the official closer than most to the dispute is shrugging off Beijing's latest military movement in the South China Sea, those who face television cameras in Manila and speak on the nation's behalf could not be more serious about the continuing Chinese military build-up in the disputed seas.

In condemning the deployment, the Philippines' Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Liaoning's journey into the disputed waters “raises tension” in the region.

“Its deployment does not contribute to collective efforts to strengthen regional stability and instead serves to threaten the status quo,” said Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, foreign affairs spokesperson, in a briefing last month.

The next day, DFA took on China's declaration of a unilateral Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over islands in the East China Sea to assert its claims over Japan.  Hernandez called out China for turning “the entire air zone into its domestic air space”.

In a press briefing where he did not entertain questions, Hernandez said the Chinese declaration “infringes on the freedom of flight in international air space and compromises the safety of civil aviation and national security of affected states”.

The Philippines' defence and foreign ministers also separately expressed concern that China might seize control of the air space in the West Philippine Sea.

“If China were to head that way as far as we are concerned, that would be a significant problem for all the claimant states of the South China Sea because there is this threat that China will control the air space [in the West Philippine Sea],” said Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in a  television interview in November.

Del Rosario did not grant an interview for this story.

In every forum, however, Del Rosario has consistently asserted the Philippine position: that China should stop incursions into the Philippines' maritime boundaries and negotiate with Asean a legally-binding Code of Conduct (COC) to govern the waters.

Speaking before the business community in Makati City in October, Del Rosario, a top businessman before his entry into public service, reiterated the Philippines' continuing protest to China's historical nine-dash line claim—Beijing's main argument against all other partial claims to the territories by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan.

“It [nine-dash line] is a claim that is expansive, excessive and in gross violation of international law, specifically UNCLOS (UN Convention on the Law of the Sea),” said Del Rosario in his remarks.

“China’s continuous overwhelming naval and maritime presence in the area is also contributing to the raising of regional tensions,” said the official.

He explained why the Philippines decided to take China to the UN Arbitral Tribunal, now holding court in The Hague, saying the legal action was “an open, friendly, and durable solution to the dispute... [that] will define and clarify maritime entitlements” in the disputed waters.

China has rejected the arbitration citing “indisputable sovereignty” over the South China Sea.  The proceedings continue, however, and the arbitral panel has ordered the Philippines to submit a plea detailing merits of its case against China by March 30, 2014.

“The Philippines has exhausted all reasonable political and diplomatic avenues for a peaceful negotiated settlement of its maritime dispute with China. Our last resort is to utilise the legal track towards the resolution of disputes,” Del Rosario said.

Without necessarily taking sides on the issue, foreign governments, including the US, Japan, Germany and the European Parliament, have expressed support for the Philippines' method of choice in seeking to resolve the dispute.

The Philippines has also been pressing for China's participation in negotiating—instead of merely consulting on  the COC in hopes of putting more teeth to what has been described as a “watered down” Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
Retired diplomat Lauro Baja, former Philippine Permanent Representative to the UN and Foreign Undersecretary, expressed doubts that China would commit to these talks, saying Beijing is “not prepared to go into any arrangement which will impose obligations on them”.

“That means in any agreement, in any decision, or in any compromise, the idea of enforcement provisions is anathema to them,” said Baja, who was part of earlier efforts to draft a COC for the South China Sea.

He said the bottomline for China in pushing for ownership of the islands—never mind what the rest of the world thinks or does—is to secure South China Sea's vast oil, mineral and marine resources for the future of its large, and still growing, population.

“They're wearing blinkers in so far as their claim is concerned. They have a single-minded purpose with what they claim, not so much because of the merits of their legal claim but it's all because of natural resources which their population needs,” said Baja, part of an informal expert group that released a white paper on the maritime issue in September last year.

He said the Philippines should not entirely abandon diplomacy as a means to reach out to China despite its pending legal action before the UN arbitral tribunal.

“In my view, diplomacy never ends. Because diplomacy may stall, diplomacy may fail, but even in the most extreme cases, there is always the diplomatic option... [The government should] reassess the strategy and pursue maybe approaches which will again go to the basics, which will again build trust and confidence between the two countries, which is zero as of now,” he said.

Despite sharp exchanges on the dispute, Del Rosario said the Philippines “endeavour to maintain a constructive relationship with China”, as agreed between Aquino and his counterpart Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2011 to “not let the maritime dispute affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation between the two countries”.

“We maintain that our dispute in the West Philippine Sea is not the sum total of our relations,” said Del Rosario.

Indeed, a break from all the tension came last month when China sent a hospital ship along with relief supplies to the Philippines in support of humanitarian work in the wake of Supertyphoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda to Filipinos), which killed more than 6,000 and displaced four million in Central Philippines.

Beijing extended its helping hand just before it caught the world's attention anew for sending Liaoning to the South China Sea and declaring the East China Sea air space as its domestic air zone. 
Back in Kalayaan town, however, the dispute is far from residents' worries, said Mayor Bito-onon. 

This even as 40-mm anti-aircraft guns looking out to sea serve as constant reminders of the threat to the village so small, one could walk the coast end-to-end in 30 minutes.

“Our life there is very quiet.  We have normal days. We go fishing, people go to work, children go to school, we help our poor people to enhance their lives,” said the official, now on his fourth year as Kalayaan town mayor.

“There are other islands inhabited by other countries. So why should I be scared when we're not the only country [occupying territories] there? They (China) will not single-out the Philippines and bully us, because the world will surely condemn them,” said Bito-onon. 
He added he has grown accustomed to it—the noise about the dispute in Manila contradicting with the calm in his village.

“We are used to it.  What we see on TV is not what we see on the ground,” he said.

There's cable and WiFi in the village of 130 people, and the daily affairs are now slowly shifting to preparations for Christmas.

Rather than the maritime dispute, Bito-onon is much more concerned about the fund misuse controversy in Manila— a corruption case that cost the Filipino public 10 billion pesos (US$228 million).

Amounts from the now invalidated Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF) of the Philippine Congress, allegedly disbursed to pockets of lawmakers and private individuals through ghost projects and organisations, could have helped towns like Kalayaan fortify its defences and provide better supplies to troops manning Philippine-claimed islands in the disputed sea, said the mayor.

“It's more painful for me to hear about the PDAF than what China is doing.  We are asking for ports, for infrastructure to support fishing vessels here, to attract tourism, but there's nothing for it,” Bito-onon said in a tone of lament.

“The government has no funds for that and then you hear about where all the money is going.  How hard could it be to allocate 200 million pesos to build a shelter in a territory they say is vital to the Philippines? Then you hear about corruption,” Bito-onon said.

“You have a road map [for development] because this will enhance the economy because there's oil, and then you're securing your sovereignty.  And then you suddenly hear [corruption] in high places among our leaders… oh my goodness,” he said.


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