The West Philippine Sea issue is a climate issue

by Michelle Cadiz and Jon Bonifacio

We’ve all heard it repeatedly from our president over the past few weeks — there’s nothing we can do about it, China is here to stay. Stay in the Philippines, to be exact, in illegal settlements on a few of our islands and reefs, because our current government can’t seem to bring itself to do anything about it.

It’s no surprise. Chinese boot-licking by the Duterte administration has been the norm for some time now, of course; the excuses just change from time to time. But it doesn’t matter what the reason is; at the end of the day, China’s still the one with free reign in the area, despite widespread condemnation across Philippine society.

But why should a climate group like YACAP care about this? At first glance, it doesn’t seem anywhere related to carbon dioxide emissions or fossil fuels.

Simply put, we should care because this is a climate issue. It’s an issue affecting people today and will continue to affect people in the future if it remains unresolved. With May being the National Month of the Ocean, it’s also important to talk about the different problems we are facing in our waters.

You only have to do a cursory search online to find the missing links between this affront to our sovereignty and the climate. On the surface level, China’s aggression into the West Philippine Sea has led to the destruction of coral reefs in the Kalayaan group of islands. According to science advocacy group Agham, the damage is estimated to cost the Philippines PHP 1.3 trillion a year. More concretely, this has severely impacted the small fisherfolk of Zambales and the surrounding provinces that fish in the Kalayaan group of islands. They have suffered loss of livelihood due to the loss of reef productivity, aggression from the Chinese military occupying the islands, and competition from Chinese fishing operations.

Looking at the long-term goals of China’s occupation of the Kalayaan group of islands, it’s also clear that fossil fuels play a part in the equation. The US Geological Survey estimated that the South China Sea (including parts of the West Philippine Sea) could have as much as 350 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, and over 20 billion barrels of oil in its reserves. Whichever country controls the area — and China is claiming a gigantic portion of the South China Sea for itself with its Nine-Dash Line— would be able to conduct deep-sea operations to extract this oil.

Deep-sea operations would have compounded impacts on the environment. Firstly, these operations would directly damage the seafloor ecosystem. Secondly, the ecosystem would be constantly at risk of oil spills in the process. Lastly, this would put more emissions into the atmosphere from extraction operations and from the consumption of the extracted fossil fuels. With China currently the largest carbon emitter today, they cannot be permitted to add literal fuel to their destructive fire.

On a deeper level, China’s incursion into the West Philippine Sea is another example of capitalist-driven colonialism. Imperialist nations have historically invaded and destabilized regions in search for resources, and just as the United States invaded Western Asia in the early 2000s, China is invading the Philippines. Both superpowers claimed they were in the right, the United States by asserting a war against terror, and China by asserting that they have a historic claim on the area. The truth is simple: they were, and are, after oil.

It is the historic and current greed of the imperialist global powers such as China, the United States, and Europe that is the root cause of the climate crisis. They have hoarded resources from the rest of the world during the golden age of empire, and continue to do so through neocolonial methods today. The profit-motivated world system of overproduction that they facilitate has resulted in massive amounts of greenhouse gases over time, and it’s countries like the Philippines that are bearing the brunt of climate change.

We cannot separate the fight for climate justice from the fight for decolonization. The fight for sovereignty, for people and for planet in the West Philippine Sea and elsewhere is just another example of the country’s struggle against modern-day colonialism.

So yes, our government might say that China is here to stay, but only for as long as we, the Filipino people, let it happen. The fight continues to pressure our government into action — though we all know it’s high time for new, better leadership — and to assert our rights as a people in whatever way we can in the face of these affronts to our sovereignty.

This article is part of the Spotlight series by YACAP’s Education Committee which talks about various issues related to climate and climate action.

Updated June 12, 2021

Published by yacaphilippines

Youth Advocates for Climate Action Philippines is an alliance of individuals, youth organizations, and student councils that advocate for immediate youth-led global climate action. The Fridays for Future of the Philippines.

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