Not the time for the Commander-in-Chief to be away

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When US President Joe Biden asked the US Congress for a $61-billion package of military assistance for Ukraine last December, US administration officials said whatever the US Congress decides will send a critical message to the rest of the world — including would-be aggressors. Obviously, China’s President Xi Jinping has gotten the message — how the US will respond if China invades Taiwan or attacks the Philippines.

Talking to a delegation of the People’s Liberation Army and Armed Police Force at China’s annual parliament meeting last Thursday, President Xi urged the armed forces to coordinate preparations for military conflicts at sea, protect the country’s maritime rights and interests, and promote the marine economy. He said it was vital to develop a cyberspace defense system and increase the ability to protect national network security.

On the same day, the Taiwanese defense ministry released a report that stated that China has increased grey-zone warfare against Taiwan, intending to “saturate” the areas surrounding the democratic island with balloons, drones, and civilian boats. The Taiwan administration claims that in the past few years China has been conducting so-called grey-zone warfare, which employs irregular tactics to harass Taiwan without resorting to open battles.

The report said that China has attempted to “increase burdens of our naval and air forces and to obscure the existence of the median line in the strait.” The median line refers to the unofficial border between Taiwan and China which China’s forces began regularly crossing in recent years. The report also said to “disguise military activities with civilians” that China has also incorporated research and militia vessels.

The United States think tank, Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), said in a report last month that more than 180 militia ships were spotted at Mischief Reef, which the Philippines calls Panganiban, from July 2023. Mischief Chief is 37 kilometers away from Second Thomas Shoal, where BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded to serve as an outpost of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Chinese Coast Guard has been blocking Manila’s resupply missions to the ship, firing water cannons at much smaller and slower Philippine vessels.

The think tank said only a minority of the boats at Mischief Reef were the professional type seen supporting Chinese efforts to block Philippine missions to Second Thomas Shoal. It said a “different pattern of activity was on display” during tensions at Second Thomas Shoal in 2023. “There, purpose-built professional militia ships from the Qiong Sansha Yu fleet that operate out of Hainan routinely worked with the China Coast Guard to block Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre.”

AMTI said the contrast between the relatively low militia presence at Second Thomas Shoal and the intensity of operations during resupply missions indicates that professional militia ships stand ready to support China Coast Guard operations at short notice at any point of friction. Scarborough Shoal has been the focus of Philippine government missions in the South China Sea this month, as the country seeks to ensure Filipino fishermen’s access to the low-tide elevation, which Filipinos call Bajo de Masinloc.

Last week, another US-based think tank, Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, said two Chinese research vessels were loitering around the Benham Rise, an extinct volcanic ridge located in the Philippine Sea. They are suspected by Philippine officials of doing surveillance.

Last Tuesday, a Chinese Coast Guard ship executed dangerous maneuvers against BRP Sindangan, a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that was escorting civilian boats on a resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre. The maneuvers led to a minor collision between the two ships, causing minor damage to the escort ship. Subsequently, two Chinese Coast Guard vessels attacked one of the resupply boats with water cannons, causing injuries to at least four of the boat’s crewmen.

“I do not think that it is time or the reason to invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty,” President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. said from Melbourne, Australia. But he said the Philippines will protest the Chinese actions of harassing, blocking, and firing water cannons at the Philippine vessels, aside from executing dangerous maneuvers.

The continuing dangerous maneuvers and aggressive actions being taken by China Coast Guard ships against our own Coast Guard vessels and Filipino civilian boats are not enough reasons to invoke the treaty. They do not fall under the treaty’s definition of an armed attack.

But the deployment more than 180 militia ships in Mischief Reef and Xi Jinping’s urging his armed forces to prepare for military conflicts at sea are compelling reasons to operationalize the country’s Comprehensive Archipelagic Defense Concept (CADC), a strategic action plan. CADC is in line with President Marcos’ directive for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to focus on external defense in order to protect and secure our entire territory and exclusive economic zone.

Now is not the time for Commander-in-Chief Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. to be away. He should be at his command post. He flew away again yesterday, this time for Germany and the Czech Republic for official working visits from March 11 to 15.

He has made 21 international trips to 15 countries so far during his presidency. The President was accompanied by First Lady Liza Araneta Marcos and his first cousin, House Speaker Martin Romualdez on all his trips. Former president Gloria Arroyo joined the presidential entourage of all the trips since Nov. 16, 2022. The President and the First Lady’s eldest son, Sandro Marcos, Ilocos Norte’s 1st District representative, joined many of the trips, while their other two sons joined some.

Well, when President Fidel Ramos went to America in 1993 to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Seattle, he brought with him First Lady Ming Ramos, their grandchildren, the First Lady’s sister and her American husband. When President Arroyo made a state visit to China in 2004, she brought along her two sons, their wives, their children, and the children’s nannies.

The number of trips per country where President Marcos has gone to are:

Three: United States, Indonesia, and Singapore (two of the three trips to Singapore were to watch the Grand Prix with the First Lady, son Zandro, and cousin Seaker Martin Romualdez)

Two: Australia and Japan

One: Belgium, Brunei (to attend the wedding of Prince Abdul Mateen, a son of Hassanal Bolkiah, Ruler of Brunei), Cambodia, China, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, Thailand, the United Kingdom (to attend the coronation of King Charles III) and Vietnam

At his inauguration as president, Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. said: “I once knew a man who saw what little had been achieved since independence in a land filled with people with the greatest potential for achievement, and yet they were poor. But he got it done. Sometimes, with the needed support. Sometimes, without. My father built more and better roads, produced more rice than all administrations before his.”

Bongbong Marcos has told the Filipino people how great his father was. He must also tell the whole world. After all, the Guinness World Record attributes to his father the record for “the greatest robbery of a government.”

That is what his trips are all about, to tell the peoples of the member nations of ASEAN, of the European Union, and of the United Nations that the Filipino people truly acknowledge the greatness of his father by electing him to the same office that his father occupied for 20 years. He brings with him on his trips the heads or representatives of the eight biggest business empires in the Philippines to show the business world that not only the Filipinos have faith in him but the business sector as well.

But Bongbong Marcos has not accomplished his mission of revising history. From the World Economic Forum in Davos to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, to the ASEAN Summit in Melbourne, he is confronted with his father’s record of massive human rights abuses and plunder of the national treasure.

He might as well stay home and bask in the adulation of millions of “bobotantes.” Or he can enhance further his idolaters’ admiration by putting on his combat uniform like he did at the contrived inauguration of his father on Feb. 25, 1986, and, with constant companion son Sandro, fly to Subic and pretend to oversee the resupply missions to BRP Sierra Madre.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. has been a keen observer of Philippine politics since the 1950s.