#Journeyto30 Reefs of mischief

By Epi Fabonan III /March 2016 / The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines – It was Valentine’s Day 1995, and yet The Philippine STAR’s banner story read, “Chinese takeover feared.”

30th-Anniversay-Philippinestar
Banner Story 1995, Courtesy: The Philippine Star

This after the Philippine Navy spotted eight Chinese ships and two concrete structures being built by the Chinese in Mischief Reef, also known as Panganiban Reef. The atoll where the encroachment happened is located 135 nautical miles west of Palawan in the South China Sea (now West Philippine Sea).

The story was enough to keep everyone on edge, prompting Manila to call for a National Security Council meeting and file an aide-mémoire, and then a diplomatic protest, against Beijing. The story became front page fare throughout much of the first half of the year and stoked anti-Chinese sentiments among many Filipinos.

Even back then, China’s mischief in our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) was already evident. A Filipino fishing vessel captain reported being blocked and harassed by Chinese navy ships in the area prior to the Philippine Navy’s sightings. Even the mayor of Kalayaan town in Pag-asa Island has reported the presence of Chinese fishermen who would block passage to reefs and drive away Filipino fisherfolk.

Even back then, there was little the government could do about these intrusions. Apart from filing a diplomatic protest, there was nothing the Ramos administration could do in response to Chinese occupation of the Kalayaan Group of Islands. The country could no longer rely on long-time ally the United States, whose military bases had been voted out the country just three years prior.

Some members of the House of Representatives led by Speaker Jose de Venecia urged Ramos to invite the US Navy to use Subic Bay again to conduct ship repairs and for crew R&Rs. They must have thought such move would hinder a growing Chinese navy from further incursions. The Ramos administration declined the proposal.

Instead, Ramos called for increased military presence and surveillance in Philippine-held islands in the region. It also began intercepting Chinese fishing boats in the area and removing markers placed by Chinese fishermen in several reefs and atolls. But in the face of the weakest armed force in Southeast Asia, the Chinese weren’t intimidated by these “small actions.” The country after all is no match against a two million-strong Chinese People’s Liberation Army. In a show of defiance, two Chinese frigates blocked a vessel of the Department of National Defense, with more than a dozen members of the press onboard, as it attempted to approach Panganiban Reef in May of the same year. Read more…

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