DO most of the country’s media organizations, among them the broadsheet that claims to have the largest audited circulation in the country, want war with China? Do they think the Philippines could win such a war? Do they believe the US would go to war with China in support of the country’s claim over the Scarborough Shoal?
Judging by the way they‘ve been reporting the Philippines-China impasse over the Shoal, the answer to all three questions is “yes.”
An incident in the seas off Bolinao, Pangasinan that may or may not have involved a foreign vessel, and a fishing boat manned by Filipino fisherfolk, for example, was immediately reported by at least three broadsheets as a “ramming” by a Chinese ship, which in the context of the continuing presence of Chinese vessels in Scarborough implied that China was escalating tensions. That was exactly how it was interpreted, especially over the Internet sites and social media networks where the report led to another frenzy of demands for vengeance against China- — punctuated with the usual racial slurs against the Chinese — from the brain-dead legions of lap-top Rambos who have an opinion on everything without the benefit of the facts.
The report that it was a ramming by a Chinese vessel that caused one death and injuries to several other Filipino fisherfolk turned out to be inaccurate on several counts. The foreign vessel involved could have been a privately- owned ship of Hong Kong registry. Although Hong Kong is a part of China, the former British colony is a Special Administrative Region governed by a Chief Executive and an Executive Council that enjoys a high degree of autonomy from the Central Chinese Government in Beijing. But the Philippine Coast Guard has also suggested that what happened was a collision that could have been accidental, while the Philippine Navy is saying it might not even have happened at all.
The initial report in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which was its June 25 lead story (“Chinese ship rams PH fish boat; 1 dead”), quoted Benito Ramos, Executive Director of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council, as its only source of information on the supposed” ramming,” and suggested that it was intentional. Ramos was also the source of front page stories on the incident in two other broadsheets.
To support the conclusion that the ship was Chinese and the collision intentional, the Inquirer story quoted a report from the China News Agency that a Chinese rear admiral had ordered the Chinese navy to “target” Filipino vessels in the vicinity of the Scarborough Shoal. The attempt to connect it with the Scarborough impasse was evident — and a stretch, Pangasinan being some 140 nautical miles, or about 300 kilometers, from the Shoal, but could nevertheless have led readers to assume that the Chinese navy is lording it over the whole of the South China Sea, and not just the Scarborough Shoal and vicinity, turning it into a Chinese lake where Chinese vessels can come and go as they please.
Since the impasse developed several months ago, much of the reports over the media have been of the same level of incompleteness, inaccuracy and plain jingoism, often in violation of the fundamental news writing rule of multiple sourcing, and of the injunction against expressing opinion in news reports.
Chinese sources are either quoted perfunctorily, implying that they’re lying, or not quoted at all. The most favored sources have been Philippine government officials, but every US statement that either declares that country’s commitment to the defense of the Philippines under the Mutual Defense Treaty or which could somehow be interpreted to mean it would support the Philippines in the unlikely event of a war with China has also been seized upon, and emphasized. The latter have included any commitment to provide the country with weapons, all of which have led to the conclusion, widespread particularly among social media users, that the United States is prepared to go to war with China in support of the Philippines.
The enthusiasm over that interpretation encouraged by the media reports, and widely assumed online in the social media sites, subsided somewhat when the US refused to explicitly make such a statement during a visit to Washington by Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, and when, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, it made it clear that the US did not consider China on the same level of threat to it as the former Soviet Union.
Nevertheless, the presumption that the US would support the Philippines to the point of going to war with China persists, among its most harmful consequences being a tendency to dismiss diplomatic efforts at resolving the crisis as pointless, and — strange for a country that has yet to modernize its armed forces — support for the argument that the only real alternative is the use of force.
But that the country’s military capability despite US military aid (that in any case usually consists of its own military’s discards) cannot compare to that of China, which many seem to have forgotten is a nuclear power and has the biggest standing army in the world, is not the argument for diplomacy and against the use of force. Rather is it that war is a scourge on all of humanity no country ever really wins.
That fundamental truth has either escaped, or has never even occurred to, many reporters and editors, who, by in effect favoring war in resolving the Scarborough crisis and by attempting to inflame national passions towards that non-option in response to the Chinese government’s arrogance and bullying, are mindlessly unaware that they’re misleading the people, and along the way fanning the embers of the anti-Chinese racism that recent posts in the chat rooms and social media networks reveal have never been extinguished despite 400 years of Philippines-China relations, the presence of thousands of OFWs in China, and many Filipinos’ Chinese lineage.
One of the most disturbing subtexts of the kind of media reporting we’ve been seeing over the Scarborough crisis is the persistence of both the racism that many might have thought had gone the way of Chinese amahs in the OFW era, and together with it, that hangover from colonial times known as the colonial mentality. The sometimes unspoken but at times explicit assumption is that the Chinese can do no right, while the country’s former colonizer, the US, can do no wrong. Both are stereotypes, and neither is true, but the outrage among many Filipinos who have access to the media and to the Internet is such that they are making these idiotic assumptions the basis for belligerency and even war as foreign policy.