POSTSCRIPT / April 19, 2012 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Rally behind President on Scarborough issue

WORD WAR: So far, it is still just a word war. But with both China and the Philippines demanding that the other side pull out from the disputed Scarborough Shoal west of Zambales, no one knows where the debate could lead to.

As the exchange escalates, it is best to keep in mind that the President is the sole spokesman of the country in foreign relations. Not a peep should be heard from other officials, except if they support or agree with him.

The usual presidential spokesmen, one of whom was corrected recently by President Noynoy Aquino, better hold their tongue and resist the urge to make off-the-cuff remarks.

Also, it is better that official statements are written out, not extemporized, the precise wording carefully crafted.

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INT’L LAW: Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario, the alter ego of the President, issued this statement last Tuesday:

The whole world knows that China has myriad more ships and aircraft than the Philippines.  At day’s end, however, we hope to demonstrate that international law would be the great equalizer.

“In pursuing a peaceful settlement of the Scarborough Shoal issue, we fully intend to humbly invite our Chinese friends to join us in the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

“The purpose of the exercise will be to ascertain which of us has sovereign rights over the waters surrounding Scarborough Shoal where Chinese ships are currently engaging in illegal activities within the Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).”

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TOTAL TRUST: Whether we agree or not with this statement, let us stand behind it.

Some of us, this observer included, frown on highlighting the fact that we have a puny navy and that the Chinese military dwarfs ours. Since this is public knowledge anyway, we prefer to have it left unsaid officially.

But we trust that the President talking through the foreign secretary has a good reason for mentioning how small we are while at the same time expressing the hope that international law will be “the great equalizer” as we deal with the Chinese dragon.

Total trust in the President on this problem is essential, seeing how China asked Monday that the Philippines pull out its naval and private vessels from Scarborough Shoal, which it calls Huangyan Island, to “restore peace and stability” in the area.

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CHINA CLAIM: Speaking through its embassy in Manila, Beijing said: “It is China that first discovered this island, gave it the name, incorporated it into its territory, and exercised jurisdiction over it.”

Denigrating the Philippine claim, the embassy said: “Philippine territory is set by a series of international treaties, including the Treaty of Paris (1898), the Treaty of Washington (1900) and the treaty with Great Britain (1930), none of which ever referred to Huangyan Island or included this island into its territory.”

“Until 1997, the Philippine side has never disputed China’s jurisdiction of and development of Huangyan Island. On the other hand, the Philippines indicated on a number of occasions that Huangyan Island was beyond its territory.

“According to international law, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the Philippines’ claim of jurisdiction and sovereignty rights over Huangyan Island with the arguments of Exclusive Economic Zone is groundless. Unclos allows coastal states to claim a 200-nautical mile EEZ, but coastal states have no rights to infringe on the inherent territory and sovereignty of other countries.”

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WITHIN EEZ: Foreign office spokesman Raul Hernandez said, however, that Scarborough Shoal — also locally called Bajo de Masinloc, sometimes Panatag Shoal — is part of the coastal Zambales town of Masinloc.

He pointed out that the shoal is 124 nautical miles west of the Zambales coast, well within the country’s 200-nautical mile EEZ and continental shelf.

But the Chinese embassy scoffs at this, saying “the Philippines asserts that Huangyan Island is closer to its territory, but in fact ‘geographical proximity’ has long been dismissed by international law and practice as the principle of the solution of territory ownership.”

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PACIFIC MODES: The foreign office and the Chinese embassy debating the issue in media may influence the thinking of a few people, but cannot settle the conflicting claims.

Filipinos will continue to say that Scarborough (Panatag) is theirs while the Chinese will insist on the contrary.

Unlike the impeachment trial of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, territorial disputes are not argued and decided on two levels, one before a judicial forum and another in the court of public opinion.

Direct negotiation appears to be problematic at the moment as the two parties have taken hard positions. The remaining pacific modes of settlement include mediation, conciliation and judicial resolution.

It is good that both countries have expressed readiness and willingness to continue talking to arrive at a solution through diplomacy.

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WITHDRAWAL: The Chinese are asking that all Philippine vessels be pulled out of Scarborough. That arrogant demand is demeaning.

What would be more acceptable, and fair, is a simultaneous withdrawal and the total cessation of fishing, research, patrol and other activities with a third party monitoring compliance.

Abandoning the site goes against the order of President Aquino for the coast guard to continue watching activities in the shoal. After all, it is Philippine territory.

A  middle ground should be worked out to help pave the way for talks.

The Philippine navy ship that first arrived at the scene to act on reported poaching by Chinese intruders has been replaced by a vessel of the Coast Guard, a civilian agency, indicating the government’s desire to defuse the situation.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 19, 2012)

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