Palawan in the West Philippine Sea

When China occupied Mischief Reef back in the mid 1990s, the Philippine government raised a big howl in the media and in the international community. The Philippine Navy simply did not have the muscle capability to stop the occupation even if it wanted to. It filed a strongly worded diplomatic protest and engaged Beijing in a diplomatic tit-for-tat.

China made a lame excuse for its action, stating that it was merely building a temporary shelter for its fishermen. The Philippine government’s response was out-of-the-box, limited as it was to putting creative diplomatic pressure on Beijing and shoring up international public opinion against China’s bullying act. It organized high-profile media tours to the remote island to create a lot of noise.

A lot of noise – that was the best the country could do at that moment. It served its purpose well; our international posturing on China’s aggression in the disputed waters was as an important backdrop to the decision of the international court in Netherlands to rule in the Philippines’ favor by citing China’s island grabs as illegal.

But there was no stopping China from digging its heels. Today, Mischief Reef is a military fortification with missile silos capable of decimating the entire mainland Palawan at the flick of a finger. It happened at a moment in our history when the Philippine government has suddenly shifted towards Beijing like it has become its protectorate. President Duterte’s light banter that we are better off as a province of China, and his claim that the missiles are of no consequence to our national security pretty much sums up our foreign policy agenda on the West Philippine Sea.

Malacañang states, albeit in awkward tones and doublespeak, that the government is not surrendering any of its territories to China. President Duterte raises the spectre of war as the sole other option to his administration’s policy not to antagonize Beijing. Moreover, he has demonstrated a tendency to lash at anyone objecting to this or proposing other ways, in curses and profane speech.

Palawan, which is ground zero for the success or failure of the country’s foreign policy tack on the West Philippine Sea, is not in any way engaged as a stakeholder in this foreign policy debate. So much for President Duterte’s promise that he will plant the Philippine flag there while riding on a jetski when he came here seeking for presidential votes. He even promised to release the province’s disputed share from Malampaya, and this too turned out to be just empty campaign trail words.

Palawan’s political leadership is being effective stymied by the president’s intolerance to suggestions on how to deal with China’s aggression. Palawan’s media is being given the runaround in covering the defense beat on matters relating to the West Philippine Sea because of an apparent gag order on the Western Command from its higher headquarters or from Malacanang itself.

This province and its people, more than anyone in the country, needs to speak out more and articulate these concerns. Afterall, those islands are part of the province and is its 23rd municipality.

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