The Philippines waving new Philippines' Flag in the Spratlys - West Philippines Sea

A delegation of five Filipino congressmen landed on a disputed island in the Spratly chain on Wednesday in a melodramatic assertion of the Philippine claim to what it calls “Pagasa” island, despite warnings from China that the trip would destabilize the region and harm relations between Beijing and Manila.

To heighten tensions arising from contending claims by China, the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan on parts, if not all, of the Spratlys, in the sea, also called by the Philippines as West Philippine Sea, the delegation arrived on Thitu island, the largest of the Philippine-occupied islands and raised two Philippine flags at a municipal government building, declaring the island “Philippine territory,” and vowing that Filipinos were “ready to defend the territory.”

But while Akbayan Rep. Walden F. Bello declared that the delegation came on a historic mission “to promote a peaceful solution” to the territorial dispute, he spoke with belligerent words, saying that although “we support a diplomatic solution … let there be no doubt in anybody’s mind, in any foreign power’s mind, that if they dare to eject us from Pagasa … Filipinos will not take that sitting down. Filipinos are willing to die for their soil.”

He spoke to about 80 Filipinos who live on Thitu, which covers in area of about seven hectares and lies about 450 kilometers northwest of Palawan. His audience included 60 Filipino residents, as well as soldiers, police, Coast Guard personnel and government employees.

Who authorized congressmen to proclaim or reiterate Philippine sovereignty on behalf of the government is a matter of conjecture, but it is clear the congressmen visited the Spratlys on their own initiative.

While no one can stop them from playing patriots, in the Philippine constitutional scheme of things, it is fairly established that foreign policy initiatives and their implementation come from the executive department, not from the legislative department.

Whether or not the congressmen cleared their visit to the Spratlys with President Aquino or whether the administration was informed about it beforehand is subject to speculation, but the government is washing its hands regarding the trip. What’s undeniable is that the trip dragged the government into an issue with China.

Beijing didn’t take the visit lightly. The Chinese Embassy in Manila criticized the trip, saying, “It serves no purpose but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage the China-Philippines relationship.”

On China’s objection to the visit, Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda made an ambiguous statement.

He said, “My understanding is that they visited our own territory, so they are not doing anything in violation of international law.”

He invoked the provision on a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“This was a move on the part of the legislators, on their own initiative, to go and visit the Spratlys,” he said.

“The Department of Foreign Affairs is in constant discussion with the Chinese Embassy and as much as we recognize concerns over this, we hope that it will not hamper relations between China and the Philippines.”

Lacierda reiterated the DFA’s position that the Chinese complaint has “no basis.”

Philippine officials tried to explain to Chinese Embassy officials that under the Philippine constitutional system, Congress is co-equal with the executive department, hence congressmen were free to decide to visit and to see for themselves conditions in those territories claimed by the Philippines.

This explanation may not be of much help to the Chinese whose system has a highly centralized structure in policy decision-making.

Over the past few months, there have been a series of incidents involving encounters between Chinese patrols and Philippine vessels conducting explorations for oil and minerals in the areas claimed by Manila.

Manila has accused Chinese forces of opening fire on Filipino fishermen in the areas claimed by the Philippines as well as putting up structures in disputed areas apparently as a prelude to the construction of more permanent structures.

The congressmen’s visit took place as officials of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations were meeting in Bali, Indonesia, to find diplomatic solutions to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which had generated fears that these would escalate into armed conflict.

The maritime dispute has dominated the agenda of the five-day Asean meeting.

Senior Asean officials have agreed on “guidelines for cooperation” in the South China Sea. But diplomats said the agreement was watered down in the search for a compromise.

While the guidelines were hailed publicly as a “significant step” in resolving the disputes, diplomats were reported to have played down their significance, saying they lack specifics.

Liu Zhenmin, China’s assistant minister of foreign affairs said the officials would submit their draft for approval to their ministers.

The guidelines, which have been under negotiations for nearly 10 years, spell out ways to implement a declaration of claimant on the need for a code of conduct to govern activities in the area.

The ultimate objective is for China and Asean to agree on a legally binding “Regional Code for Conduct in the South China Sea,” but diplomats considered this goal a distant dream.

This brings us to the question: What purpose did the intervention of Philippine congressmen, through their visit to the Spratlys, serve? On the face of it, it was no more than a flag-waving exercise. The Chinese do not respect such hollow gestures.

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