[PHOTO -Schoolchildren and their parents are seen inside the newly opened Pag-Asa Elementary School. Philippine officials have opened a small kindergarten on a South China Sea island that is also claimed by five other governments (Photo: AP)

MANILA, JUNE 29, 2012 (INQUIRER) Predictably, China has again engaged in saber-rattling and warned the Philippines against the latter’s decision to open a public kindergarten on Pag-asa in the Kalayaan island chain off the province of Palawan.

Hong Lei, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, said that Beijing “opposes any illegal activity that may infringe on China’s sovereignty,” according to the state-run Xinhua News Agency.

Hong said Manila should “refrain from taking any measure that will complicate and exacerbate the current situation and affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.” But isn’t China itself exacerbating the situation?

By commenting on Pag-asa’s five-pupil kindergarten, which is purely internal to the Philippines as far as we’re concerned, China “internationalizes” the matter and makes of a perfectly innocent thing a pawn in geopolitical power play.

Moreover, China’s statement betrays doublespeak. While Hong said he hoped “relevant countries will abide by the spirit of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea,” which China and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) signed in 2002, he asserted that his country had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly islands and their surrounding waters.

China conveniently ignores that the Philippines controls Pag-asa and that Filipinos live on the island which is part of the municipality of Kalayaan.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has asserted that “the Kalayaan group of islands, which includes Pag-asa, is an integral part of Philippine territory as declared in Republic Act No. 9522 and other relevant Philippine laws.” As President Aquino’s spokesperson Edwin Lacierda put it, China can say whatever it wants but it should not make Pag-asa an issue because “the municipality has been there” for a long time “and it’s never been questioned.”

The Philippines has been exercising effective jurisdiction over Pag-asa since 1971; the establishment of a kindergarten is merely a reaffirmation of that fact. Pag-asa has a town hall, a health center, an airstrip and a naval station, among other infrastructure.

The Philippine military occupies several of the Kalayaan islands that the country claims are part of its territory. In contrast, China has built a number of military facilities that it claims are there to provide shelter for its fishers. But there’s much debate about whether or not they’re fishers. As evident in Panatag Shoal off Zambales, the fishers are actually poachers, raiding marine sanctuaries and hauling off endangered species.

Simply put: There must be a way of forwarding one’s claim of sovereignty and jurisdiction over contested territory in ways less harmful to the environment. If indeed the kindergarten in Pag-asa is designed to advance that claim, then it’s a less debilitating way of doing that than giving free rein to poaching. In fact, education must be a key to enlighten minds and alert them to the dangers of environmental depredation.

The Philippines has advanced diplomatic initiatives to settle the disputes over the Spratlys. During the Asean summit in Cambodia last April, it asked the regional grouping to take the lead in resolving the dispute in the West Philippine Sea, and to bring the Spratlys claimants together toward “a rules-based, multilateral and peaceful resolution of the issue.” Central to this would be the drafting of the Code of Conduct among the claimants. The United States supports the planned Code of Conduct.

Filipinos are pursuing education and development to consolidate their claim over Pag-asa and other islands.

They’re also turning to art.

What may get China’s dander is the announcement that one of the movies in the Director’s Showcase of the Cinemalaya festival of independent cinema this month is about Pag-asa: its title, quite appropriately, is “Kalayaan.”

It was shot by director Adolfo Alix Jr. right in the Spratlys and stars Thai matinee idol Ananda Everingham.

Since Alix has won awards in the international film festival circuit (he was listed by the Hollywood Reporter in its “Next Generation Asia 2010” as among the top 20 young entertainment personalities in Asia deemed “the best and the brightest among their peers” from a vast region considered “the world’s biggest entertainment market”), and considering further that Everingham has an international following, “Kalayaan” will surely be shown abroad.

Then the world will further know about the situation in the Spratlys. The dispute will be further “internationalized” and the Philippine claim humanized.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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