Part One: Unholy Anti-China Soft Alliance on the Rocks?
A lot better-looking than Jay Tarriela, Philippine Coast Guard self-proclaimed spox for West Philippine Seas, Pham Thu Hang, deputy spokeswoman of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, protested the Philippines’ placement of buoys at Whitsun Reef, among others.
While Ms. Pham said the action violates international law, she reaffirmed Vietnam’s sovereignty over East Sea waters surrounding the Spratly Islands,
“Vietnam resolutely opposes all activities that violate its sovereignty and relevant rights overs the Spratly Islands.”
She was responding to the placement of the Philippine Coast Guard of five navigational buoys at locations in the South China Sea, which Vietnam calls the East Sea, last May 10 to May 12.
Ms. Pham said Vietnam has the full legal basis and historical evidence to affirm its sovereignty over the Spratly (Truong Sa) Islands in accordance with international law.
“Vietnam asks all relevant parties to respect Vietnam’s sovereignty, international law, and the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea while making practical and positive contributions to the maintenance of peace and stability in the South China Sea, as well as creating a conducive environment for the negotiations for a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea,” she added.
The PCG installed navigational buoys at Patag Island, Kota Island, Panata Islands, fishing ground in Balagtas, and Juan Felipe Reef. It plans to install six more this year.
Lone Ranger or Tonto?
This provocation of conflict in the South China Seas involving a third country, exposes the gross incompetence of Tarriela, who has become a commodore in our coast guard despite being a dropout of the Philippine Military Academy, thanks to his friendship with former associate justice Antonio Carpio and the patronage of Commandant Artemio Abu.
Abu has also appointed him adviser for maritime security, a title that does not appear in the plantilla of the Department of Budget and Management.
It also exposes the utter ignorance of Tarriela in South China Seas issues.
Fanned by his anti-China sentiments, clearly shown in his public statements and papers, the johnny-come-lately poseur forgot that other than China, the entire South China Seas is being claimed, not for sovereign rights only, but for territorial sovereignty by also Vietnam a country, and Taiwan a province of China.
This is why Taiwan did not recognize a word of the much-celebrated but more of pyrrhic victory of the Philippines in 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration award. The nine-dash line, spuriously “invalidated” by that impaired arbitral tribunal, was originally created by the Republic of China (ROC) as the eleven-dash line.
The Peoples Republic of China became the successor-in-interest of ROC, when the UN General Assembly, by more than two-thirds vote including that of the United States, passed Resolution 2758 on October 25, 1971 recognizing PRC as the “the only legitimate representative of China to the United Nations”.
For the information of Tarriela, that established the “One-China” policy that reduced Taiwan to a mere province of China.
Last March 2022, he wrote paper for the Pacific Forum in Hawaii, entitled Coast Guard Engagement as an Interim Alternative to Bilateral Maritime Cooperation, saying Washington needs an interim approach to continue its maritime security cooperation with Manila, one that would not be perceived as simply a repackaged strategy to curtail Beijing’s aggressive behavior.
Tarriela was clearly delusional. On October 7, 2016, Duterte put on hold plans for US-Philippine joint patrols in the disputed South China Seas – his first concrete break in defense cooperation with the Americans after three months of increasingly strident comments against the arrangement. He also halted the 28 military exercises that are carried out with US forces each year.
Spurting a confused statement obviously not cleared or authorized by President Rodrigo Duterte, Tarriela continued on saying “the USCG-Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) engagement is a step in the right direction that could, in the long term, advance a more rules-based and stable regional maritime environment.”
Further shamelessly bordering on both hubris and insubordination, Tarriela even used the paper to wrongly judge a sitting Philippine president’s independent foreign policy, saying “Duterte’s foreign relations are affected by his rancor toward anyone criticizing his domestic policies.”
The PCG officer obviously misjudged Duterte’s lashing at those, especially foreigners, disagreeing with his deadly crackdown against illegal drugs, as a weakness that has somewhat prejudiced his foreign policy.,
Not content with sucking up to his mostly American audience in Honolulu, the braggart minimized his commander-in-chief saying, “It should be emphasized that the idea of supporting PCG development did not originate from Duterte himself but was a continuation of previous presidents’ policy that recognized PCG’s relevance in the maritime sector and its eventual role in patrolling Philippine waters in the SCS.”
After saying this, the commissioned officer of the Philippine Coast Guard with the rank of Commander and director of PCG’s Leadership and Doctrine Development Center, only exposed himself as having no compass, as he would contradict himself by enumerating the comprehensive and record-breaking achievements of Duterte to boost and modernize the Philippine Coast Guard.
For the record, the Philippines only had a coast guard in name before Duterte. During and after Duterte, the Philippine Coast Guard has stood to be one of the pillars of the Philippine Republic.
But I cannot say the same thing for its present leadership, given Abu and Tarriela. Under them, I see a conflicted agency who has problem crossing over from purely coast guard issues to geopolitics and international relations.
Adding insult to injury, in the abstract of the same paper, Tarriela asserted – “the use of the coast guard is a non-partisan issue regardless of the inclination of the government in power.”
There has been a policy change under the present dispensation – from the strategic balancing Duterte made that made it appear he was leaning towards China, President Bongbong Marcos pivoted back to Washington, following, among others, a soft-coup by pro-American elements of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
A year after, on March 2023, Tarriela appeared in one of the closed-door forums of the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies through its Manila adjunct Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, asserting “We cannot allow ourselves to fall again into the gray zone trap of China to paint the Philippines’ image as a warmongering nation.”
“The current approach, for now, is to tap our white ships. The strategy is in accordance with the regional norms so that we can de-escalate the tension among other claimant states and at the same time does not provoke other countries,” he said.
But ever since Tarriela’s dubious appointments, other than his real item as in-charge of human resources (personnel), the otherwise calm waters in the Spratly Islands under Duterte, has once again been disturbed.
On February 13, 2023, the PCG accused a Chinese Coast Guard vessel 5205 of pointing a “military-grade” laser light seven days earlier, at one of its vessels supporting a military rotation and resupply mission of the Philippine Navy in Ayungin Shoal.
“As BRP Malapascua reached a 10nm (nautical miles) distance from Ayungin Shoal, the CCG vessel was monitored approximately 4nm of the ship’s dead ahead maneuvering from the portside heading starboard side. The Chinese ship then illuminated the green laser light twice toward the BRP Malapascua, causing temporary blindness to its crew at the bridge.”
The incident created a media excitement sending President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to summon to Malacanang, the China’s Ambassador to Manila Huang Xilian.
The Ambassador in a later press conference, belied the claim of a use of a military-grade laser insisting that Chinese Coast Guard ships do not carry such equipment. He likewise reduced the Philippine Coast Guard claim to absurdity, saying that the green lasers used were for estimating distances between objects, calculating speeds and are readily available to the general public on-line.
In a later speech at the ERA University in Quezon City, Xilian said “I believe there are two main reasons for [this] happening. The first is the lack of communication between the maritime-related authorities and law enforcement agencies. And two, a lack of mutual understanding and trust between the frontliners at sea.”
“Miscommunication leads to misunderstanding and misunderstanding leads to misjudgments,” he added.
The simplest explanation here is the Philippine side did not inform in advance, and coordinate activities, with the Chinese side. The PCG appearance was unannounced and therefore they were challenged, instead of being assisted.
On March 11, 2023, a Philippine Coast Guard aircraft carrying journalists was ordered to “leave immediately” by a Chinese coast guard ship as the plane flew over the Kalayaan Island Group in the West Philippine Sea on Thursday.
On April 23, 2023, after three days at sea coming from Manila, a PCG vessel BRP Malapascua and another ship BRP Malabrigo, carrying local and foreign journalists, steamed toward Ayungin Shoal which is about 35 kilometers from Mischief Reef, which China started transforming into an artificial island in 2014 with facilities including a 2,700-meter airstrip.
The China Coast Guard vessels from its port at Mischief Reef have been regularly patrolling Ayungin Shoal, apparently to make sure the Philippine Navy’s rusting World War 2 vintage ship the BRP Sierra Madre that ran aground there in 1999, is not repaired or made into a bigger platform.
When BRP Malapascua started to enter the shoal toward the Sierra Madre itself, one Chinese ship steamed faster and maneuvered to block it from further moving toward the shoal. A collision was averted only at the last minute when the PCG ship reversed engines and stopped just 45 meters away.
The Chinese vessel had much-earlier asked the PCG to leave the area as its two ships had no prior notice to enter it. The Malapascua and Malabrigo ignored the warnings.
Finally, last May 10 to 12, the PCG laid buoys, near the Whitsun Reef.
The Whitsun Reef is claimed by three parties – It is called Niu’e Jiao by China and Julian Felipe Reef by the Philippines and Đá Ba Đầu by Vietnam.
For now, I end this part by saying Tarriela had better watch his back as this incident might not settle well with Justice Carpio’s wife, Ruth Nguyen, who is Vietnamese.
To be Continued. The next part will discuss the disastrous effects of a seeming soft alliance between the Philippines and Vietnam aimed against China.
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