CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Bishop’s timely call for prayer for peace in South China Sea dispute

HONG KONG (SE): The bishop of Hong Kong called on people of the diocese to particularly pray for peace in the dispute between China and The Philippines, as well as among other stakeholders in the tensions arising over the South China Sea decision handed down by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on July 12.

“The relations between China and other claimants in the South China Sea dispute, especially The Philippines, have become increasingly tense with the (Permanent Court of Arbitration) ruling,” John Cardinal Tong Hon said in a circular containing a Prayer of the Faithful to be said at Sunday Masses on July 17 and sent to all parishes and religious houses in the diocese.

“May the Lord enlighten the leaders of the countries concerned, so that they may resolve the dispute with political wisdom and maintain peace, stability and harmony. For this we pray to the Lord,” the prayer reads.

Peace between China and The Philippines takes on an extra significance in the Hong Kong diocese, as well over two-thirds of people attending Mass in English of a Sunday are Filipino.

The tension in the South China Sea, or the West Philippine Sea as it is referred to in Manila, came to a head back in 2012, with a blockade of the Scarborough Shoal, at which time the bishops of The Philippines expressed their concerns about possible violent clashes and composed a Prayer for Peace in the area to be recited at all Masses in the country of a Sunday.

They repeated the request in 2015 and encouraged people to show China that The Philippines is a Christian nation that only has peaceful designs in its international relationships.

While the former chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, claimed at a forum in Hong Kong on July 14 that China has not shown any aggression in the disputed area, UCAN reported Alexander Manzano, a Filipino fisherman from Zambales, as remembering the day in 2012 that he and hundreds of fishermen lost access to their traditional livelihoods, when their 10 small fishing boats found themselves facing Chinese guns and water cannons.

Manzano said that a burst of water from one cannon almost capsised one of the boats.

“We tried to argue with them, but they moved as if to ram us and we had to leave,” Manzano told UCAN.

“For 40 years I fished in Bajo de Masinloc, then one morning in 2012 the Chinese stole my rights,” Manzano said just hours before an international tribunal on July 12 ruled against China’s claim on the disputed waters.

The Philippines cited this type of aggression from China when it filed its case with the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013. In its ruling, the court noted that China had indeed transgressed the rights of other nations in its attempt to lay claim to territorial rights in the busy shipping lane, which is rich in fish and minerals.

While China has vowed to ignore the ruling of the court and has already begun new naval exercises around the Spratley Islands to defend what it calls its legitimate territory, it is also demanding bilateral negotiations with the various nations laying claim to rights in the disputed area.

However, China is not the first major power to thumb its nose at the jurisdiction of the international court.

In this context the request of the bishop of Hong Kong for peaceful relations is particularly poignant, as history reveals that in similar situations the bigger player in the bilateral relations pays scant attention to either the rights or needs of the smaller party.

In 1986, when the same court ruled against the United States of America (US) in a case filed by Nicaragua, the US refused to abide by the ruling of the court.

The tribunal had ordered Washington to pay Managua an initial sum of US$370 million ($2.9 billion) for illegal mining in the ports of Nicaragua during its assault on the Sandinista government.

However, the case was later settled in negotiations between Washington and Managua, in which the then-minister for foreign affairs, Father Miguel D’Escoto, said his country lost out badly.

But China is in a much stronger position than the US was in 1986, as it has ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of Sea, while the US has signed the agreement, but not ratified it.

The Sydney Morning Herald reported on July 15 China is not the only bully in the region willing to thumb its nose at international law and kick its smaller neighbours around in the interests of gaining greater territorial control and access to lucrative resources.

It points out that the Australian government has unilaterally depleted the contested Laminaria Corallina oil fields, which tiny Timor Leste claimed belongs to it. They have now been sucked dry without Dili receiving a single dollar.

In 2002, Australia’s minister for foreign affairs, Alexander Downer, pre-emptively withdrew Australia’s recognition of the maritime boundary jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice.

Canberra, like Beijing, has been squabbling about the jurisdiction—trying to dismiss the independent umpire as irrelevant.

While The Philippines does not have history on its side, it can certainly pack a much bigger punch than either Nicaragua or Timor Leste and, in addition, has powerful allies, as well as significant support from its Asian neighbours.

The Sydney daily newspaper says, “A rules-based world order is in Australia’s interest. But the first step in making that a reality is to stop treating international law like a buffet menu from which you can just pick and choose the bits you want and discard anything you don’t like the look of.”

Any bilateral negotiation could be testy and, as the former president of The Philippines, Noynoy Aquino, fears, his country would also lose out badly in any deal that China is likely to agree to.

What happens next will certainly be testy and the bishop’s call for prayer for peace is most timely.

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