POSTSCRIPT / May 15, 2012 / Tuesday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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Fishing ban may just provide Panatag lull

SHORT WAIT: Instead of allowing ourselves to be carried away by the propaganda of both sides in the impeachment of Chief Justice Renato C. Corona, why don’t we just wait for the moment of truth in the Senate trial?

In a matter of days we would know who is lying: those accusing the Chief Justice of keeping a $10-million hoard, or Corona who had flatly denied having such bank account(s).

Corona had said he would testify on this before the Senate. On the other hand, Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales and private accusers had been summoned to repeat their statements under oath.

There are still a few loose ends, such as the quibbling over the tenor of accusations actually made, but by and large the issues are joined.

So instead of joining the unproductive media-drive speculation on what the protagonists might say or do, let us just wait and watch.

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FISHING BAN: The seasonal fishing ban that China has set over a wide area in the South China Sea may prove to be a face-saving respite from the standoff that had strained relations between Beijing and Manila.

Neither of the two neighbors has said so, but both of them are obviously not willing or ready to escalate their territorial war of nerves into a shooting match over the Scarborough shoals off Zambales.

China has enforced since 1999 a summer fishing ban, this time from May 16 to Aug. 1. But it is only this year that Scarborough (Panatag to the Philippines) was mentioned.

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FACE-SAVING: Instead of focusing on conflicting claims over Scarborough, Beijing and Manila – with the assistance of third parties such as the United States – can promote the ban as a cooperative conservation project.

That is, if China and the Philippines, as well as their common friends in the background, are looking for a way out of the Scarborough situation without losing face.

But China has announced that it would police the disputed fishing grounds during the ban, to the exclusion of Philippine navy ships.

If only Beijing could be convinced now to agree to a simultaneous withdrawal from Scarborough not only of fishing boats but also of all naval vessels.

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MARINE CONSERVATION: China has announced its intention of maintaining its naval presence in the shoals, a move that could be rationalized by the need to monitor and enforce the ban.

A way should be found to convince Beijing to allow other countries in the region, including the Philippines and maybe Vietnam, to join the conservation project by sending even just token patrol craft.

The idea is to use the ban to effect a de-escalation by shifting focus to the common desire for the protection and conservation of the marine ecosystem — without disturbing existing territorial claims.

For joint efforts on environmental protection, the good offices of the United Nations could be tapped.

* * *

COOLING-OFF: The ban, or its enlargement as a joint conservation effort, could provide a cooling-off period – however fragile and temporary — conducive to finding a diplomatic resolution of political issues.

An early goal should be the replacement of naval vessels in disputed areas with non-military patrol boats. The private fishing vessels would be easier to handle.

As announced by Beijing, the ban “means no fishing will be allowed except for mono-layer gillnets, and hook and line fishing.”

Chinese authorities intend to seize the boats, catch and fishing gear of violators.

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U.S. ATTITUDE: In Los Angeles the other day, Ambassador Harry K. Thomas provided more insight into the US attitude toward Philippine issues.

Reporting from the CBS News Center, Dionesio “Dioni” Grava summarized Thomas’ remarks before the Fil-Am community and the media thus:

* The US favors a consensual and peaceful resolution of the Philippine-China conflict. Washington supports the ASEAN position, which is also the Philippine position. (This calls for a multilateral, instead of a bilateral, resolution of disputes.)

* The International Court of Justice, where the Philippines wants to raise the Scarborough question, cannot make a binding decision unless both parties are in it. (Both countries must first submit and agree in advance to abide by whatever decision may be handed down.)

* On whether the US would defend the Philippines in case China attacks it, Thomas said that they do not deal with hypothetical situations. (State Secretary Hillary Clinton had said the same thing.)

* The Obama administration thinks that President Noynoy Aquino is earnest in his “Walang kurap, walang mahirap” goal.

* The US is pleased with Justice Secretary Leila de Lima’s role in anti-human trafficking, but that the Philippine government has to really go after corruption at Customs, Immigration, etc.

* Outsourcing is not something the US government perceives with love, but conceded that the Philippines is No. 1 in it. However, the Philippines should not rely solely on it.

* Many people in the Philippines have iPads, but some important government offices lack computers.

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NOT INSTANT: Thomas’ saying they do not reply to hypothetical questions when asked what the US would do if the Philippines were attacked was obviously his way of evading making a direct answer to a clear question.

Under the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951, American retaliation in case the Philippines were attacked from outside will have to be carried out following its constitutional processes.

Under the US Constitution, the President may not send out American armed forces for more than 60 days or fight a foreign war without the approval of the Congress.

This precludes an instant retaliation by the US in case Philippine territory or armed forces were attacked. No wonder, Clinton and Thomas could merely say they do not answer hypothetical questions.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 15, 2012)

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