WELCOME TO CHINA! | Over SMS and cyberspace Beijing sends a message over Palawan Province

MANILA, Philippines – China appears to be bolstering its claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, besides regularly deploying sea patrols. In cyberspace and in telecommunications, Beijing seems to have found a subtle way to “virtually” expand Chinese territory.

In 2013, a special report by InterAksyon.com showed that on Google Earth, China has outsmarted the Philippines by planting its virtual flags on those various islands that dot the coveted, resource-rich archipelago in the West Philippine Sea (how Manila refers to the South China Sea).

A cursory look at photos uploaded by Internet users to the 3D map program Google Earth revealed that citizens from China, Vietnam and Taiwan had “invaded” the islands in question, with a glaring absence of Philippine contributions to the online mapping service.

The photos, uploaded through photo-sharing service Panoramio, dot several locations in the highly disputed Spratly Islands — more commonly referred to as the Kalayaan Group of Islands — and Panatag Shoal just West of Luzon island.

Mobile phone at Ayungin

The scramble to tag the islets - at least on the cybermap - as their possession comes to mind amid the furor triggered by journalist Raissa Robles’ posting of a photo in her blog of an SMS that appeared in the mobile phone of a colleague riding a plane that recently flew over the Ayungin Shoal, scene of the March 29 standoff between a Philippine re-supply boat and two Chinese coastguard vessels.

The civilian fishing boat was bearing food and other supplies for a Marine contingent on the abandoned BRP Sierra Madre, an old Navy ship placed by the Philippines in a strategic spot on Ayungin Shoal to stake its presence in an area it calls part of its continental shelf. The civilian boat, also carrying some mediamen and soldiers who were to relieve the Marines who had finished a five-month tour on the BRP Sierra Madre, was harassed by the Chinese coastguard but eventually evaded the blockade and got near to the Sierra Madre, completing its mission.
As this was happening on the ground, up in the air Robles’ journalist-friend – a subscriber of Philippine telco Globe - was shocked to see an SMS that began with the surreal greeting, Welcome to China!” flashing on the screen of his mobile phone.

Robles wrote: “The plane passengers were monitoring a supply ship that was en route to bringing provisions to marines guarding Ayungin Shoal from being taken over by China. China claims the Philippines is “illegally” occupying Ayungin. A Chinese coast guard vessel was trying to block the supply ship for hours last Saturday.

“In the Globe Telecom statement, the company’s lead lawyer Froilan Castelo, said it is investigating the incident. Castelo went on to say that: ‘Technically speaking, cellular phones are able to pick up a dominant signal in the area where they are. At a certain altitude, cellular signals could be as strong as radio frequencies emitted by cell sites because they are unimpeded by buildings or other on-ground infrastructure. In the case of the Ayungin Shoal, it is quite possible that the mobile phone could pick up the signal of another network since the area is within territorial borders.’

But, Robles pointed out, Atty. Castelo, “does not explain whose territorial borders he’s referring to. Also, how come mobile phones can pick up China Mobile’s but not Globe’s network? Why is China Mobile’s signal dominant in an area claimed by the Philippines as part of its territory when China’s nearest land mass is miles and miles away? Where is China Mobile’s signal coming from?”

Digital landgrabbing

The Ayungin Shoal incident may seem surreal to Filipinos who wonder how territory so near to Palawan’s mainland, and so far from China, could be owned by Beijing; but to those who have tried the Paronamio service on Google Earth, it is not surprising: cyberspace shows numerous islands and islets in the maritime dispute zone littered with “claims”.

 In Parola Island, for example, the farthest Philippine-occupied territory in the island chain, the Vietnamese had uploaded a number of photos depicting structures erected by the Vietnamese government in the island they call Dao Song Tu Dong, or the Southwest Cay.

Further South, the Vietnamese claim could not be more assertive as users uploaded a photo of Dao Da Nam island, part of the disputed Paracel Islands, with the caption: “Belong to Vietnam.”

In Panatag Shoal off Zambales in western Luzon, where Chinese and Philippine governments have been in a standoff since April 2012, the virtual tension is more apparent: while one photo depicting the Philippine flag perched atop one of the rocky atolls in the area is clearly labeled “Panatag Shoal,” another photo — this time a Chinese flag waving atop a small rock — shouts: Huangyan Island – Chinese inherent territory.

Chinese and Philippine naval forces were locked in a standoff last year along Panatag Shoal (also referred to as Scarborough Shoal) as the latter accused the emerging superpower of a “de facto occupation” of the disputed shoal after China dispatched government vessels along the area.
The Philippines insists that the shoal is well within the 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone as defined by international law, but China has included the shoal as part of the territories it is claiming in almost all of the West Philippine Sea as part of its 9-dash-line claim in the area.

Kalayaan islands ours

Though Vietnam and China had made their virtual claims to these islands more apparent than the Philippines, not all islands are, so to speak, “reserved” by these nations. In Pag-Asa Island, for example, where the seat of government of the Kalayaan Group of Islands is located, most contributed photos were that of detachment units and structures that were built by Filipinos on the island. Though there were still Chinese and Vietnamese photo uploads on the island, the Philippine-contributed photos clearly outnumber them all.

The scarcity of Philippine-uploaded photos on the Google Earth application, however, may not be attributed entirely to a more vigorous claim by other countries. The photos, sourced from Google-owned service Panoramio, are user-generated — which means Filipinos would have to contribute their own photos so that it will show up in the service.

The real battle

Meanwhile, the real battle unfolds on two fronts: first physically, in the waters where Beijing’s substantially increased maritime fleet has been deployed for regular “patrols” of Chinese-claimed territory, routinely harassing boats of other nations like the Philippines; and second, in the United Nations court, where Manila infuriated Beijing last Sunday (March 30) by proceeding to file, despite warnings, its Memorial or summary of arguments in its complaint against China’s “excessive” nine-dash-line claim.

Beyond the physical and legal battle fronts, the war for people’s hearts and minds could also be fairly expected to proceed apace in cyberspace and in telecommunications, underscoring the weird texture of today’s messages: to Filipinos preparing to commemorate in April the worst episodes of their three-year misery under foreign occupiers during World War II, nothing can be as chilling as the short, chirpy phrase: “Welcome to China!”

Source: INTERAKSYON

 

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