THE recent Chinese taking of a shoal well inside the Philippines' 200-mile economic zone in the South China Sea is a time of reckoning for Manila.
It is tantamount to an invasion and is the first blatant violation of its territory since the Philippines lost its external defense deterrent with the 1992 ouster of United States forces from the former Clark and Subic military bases. The base closures had then aroused fears in the region that China might now want to flex its muscles over its claim of the Spratly Islands.
The crisis began last month when it was discovered that China had built a military platform on the aptly named Mischief Shoal. The Chinese move has revived fears that the Spratlys might become a flash point for war in Asia.
In a diplomatic protest ignored by Beijing, the Philippines offered a feeble response. But the Senate quickly passed a bill that had languished for three years that sets aside $2 billion to modernize the dilapidated armed forces over a period of five years. President Fidel Ramos was set to sign it into law.
Manila officials expect the Chinese Navy to stay put on the shoal indefinitely. The Philippines, weakest among six nations that claim some or all of the Spratlys, sent whatever it could muster of its armed forces - five aging F-5 jet fighters, two helicopters, four Italian-made S-211 jet trainer planes, and three patrol boats - to its main southwest island of Palawan straddling the disputed area in the South China Sea. They were not to dislodge the Chinese, Philippine officials stressed, but a symbolic gesture that Manila is not backing down in a confrontation with China.
In an address to the Philippine Military Academy alumni on Feb. 19, President Ramos said: ``If there be any intruders ... into our territory or exclusive economic zone, we shall ask them to depart and leave us in peace.''
Lacking the punch to back up its plea, the Philippines is prepared to accept a long Chinese stay at Mischief Shoal. ``I don't think it will blow over,'' says a senior Cabinet strategist. ``I credit China more than that. We have to work harder to get others to respect the United Nations Law of the Sea.''
That is the only option left for Manila: to take the moral high ground and wage diplomacy. ``Restraint is the real power,'' says the strategist in explaining Manila's response. ``Restraint is a manifestation of what is right,'' he continued.
In expressing his disappointment, he pointed out that China had not adhered to the 1992 Manila Declaration of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which was supported by regional powers to settle the Spratlys claim peacefully. Apart from the Philippines, four countries - Malaysia, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Brunei - claim parts of the Spratlys. China claims the entire string of atolls, which are potentially rich in oil and gas.
``They did what they did - they have destabilized the region,'' he says of the Chinese occupation of the reef. ``China is a natural leader in the Asia-Pacific, but if it wishes to be a power, it has to be sure of its moral position.''
Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo says the Philippines is discussing the issue with China ``in both formal and informal levels.''
``It's important that our dialogue continue,'' he says. ``Whether we have a meeting of minds, that is a different issue.''
The Philippines' co-members of ASEAN have individually voiced concern over the conflict. Yet ASEAN is cautious in not wanting to take the issue to the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), which was set up last October to deal with regional security issues. Vietnam, which lost some of its own Spratly Islands to China in 1988, is set to join ARF in July, and ASEAN is not eager to turn the forum against Beijing.
Vietnam has condemned the Chinese act against the Philippines as ``an encroachment.'' Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has also warned against turning the forum into a ``finger-pointing'' session. ``I don't think anyone is envisaging that the ARF meeting will itself be a vehicle for the attempted resolution of this issue,'' he said. ``Nor do I think that it will be helpful if the venue turned into a finger-pointing, name-calling [session]...'' he said in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 18.
Noel Morada, an analyst with the Manila-based Institute for Strategic and Development Studies thought that pressure would be on China to behave.
``With its continuous pronouncements, the Philippine government is in fact exploiting world opinion. China is now in a defensive position and other countries are watching how China will respond,'' Morada says.
Philippine officials hope China had given itself a way out by explaining away the steel structures it built on Mischief Shoal as shelters for fishermen.
What is puzzling to most analysts is why China chose to strike so close to Philippine shores. Mischief Shoal is 135 nautical miles off the southern tip of Palawan, while the eight islets in the Spratlys that the Philippines has fortified and renamed the Kalayaan (Freedom) islands are further out in the China Sea.
Whether the action had the sanction of the leadership in Beijing, engrossed as it is with paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's apparent demise, seems besides the point that Beijing is trying to make: that it is exerting its claim over the entire Spratlys in the South China Sea.
``It is a test case in finding out how ASEAN will act,'' Morada says.