POSTSCRIPT / September 6, 2016 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Xi ready to lose Duterte in Laos?

THE DIPLOMATIC mettle of President Rodrigo Duterte will be tested this week in Vientiane, Laos, in getting a positive response from China President Xi Jinping to his plea that Filipinos be allowed to fish again in their traditional fishing ground grabbed by the Chinese.

The minimum expectation is an assurance that China will stop barring Filipinos from Panatag (Scarborough, Huangyan) shoal where they have been casting their nets for generations. The area is 120 nautical miles west of Zambales and 530 nm east of Hainan, the nearest China land mass.

If China remains inflexible on this single issue of sharing Panatag equitably with its rightful beneficiaries, the entire effort of building firm and friendly ties between China and the Philippines will lose its meaning.

After a standoff in mid-2012, Philippine vessels left Panatag in good faith under a mutual-pullout agreement brokered by the United States – but China reneged on it. Chinese patrol craft and fishing boats stayed, and its coast guard has since controlled the area.

Duterte has humbled himself by publicly begging China to share Panatag with Filipinos whose friendship he affirmed. Elaborating, he cited the somewhat irrelevant fact that he, like many Filipinos, has Chinese blood.

But instead of a positive response, the President received intelligence reports that Beijing has moved in barges, indicating that China is preparing to reclaim and convert the shoal into an islet as it has done in several other disputed maritime areas.

Hong Kong media have reported of China’s alleged plans to build an airstrip on Panatag after its development, and to set up missiles on the artificial island. These reports have not been confirmed independently, but Beijing has not denied them either.

• How to catch the ears of Xi and Obama?

VIENTIANE is Duterte’s first summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He will accept there the Philippine chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017, its 50th founding year, during which Manila will host some 40 major meetings.

Debuting on the world stage with the terrorist bombing in his home city of Davao in the background, Duterte has to catch the ear of Xi above the din of the ASEAN summit and the power talk of the Big Boys pushing their respective agenda.

If China’s leader Xi defers making a clear commitment on Panatag, or if he interposes too many pre-conditions for substantive talks, it may be time for Duterte to reassess his seeming partiality to Beijing’s overtures and show some spine.

Duterte seems to be holding out for such items as railroad lines, other infrastructure and joint investments. But such long-gestation projects will be overshadowed by the administration’s failure to quickly restore the normalcy of the lives of Filipino families displaced from Panatag.

His meeting with US President Barack Obama is being watched as the latter is expected to express concern over the summary killings that have marked his anti-drugs drive. Duterte is touchy on the subject of human rights and extrajudicial killings.

But it helps Manila’s cause that Obama raised before Xi on the eve of the G20 summit in Hangzhou the need to abide by the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague striking down China’s claim over much of the South China Sea and infringing on the rights of the Philippines based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Obama stressed the US’s “unwavering commitment to the security of its treaty allies,” and reaffirmed its working “with all countries in the region to uphold the principles of international law, unimpeded lawful commerce, and freedom of navigation and over-flight.”

China has rejected the UNCLOS ruling and accused the US of fomenting trouble in the areas where its territorial claims overlap those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. China also has a quarrel with Japan over the Senkaku islands.

• Questions raised on ‘state of lawlessness’

AS HE LEFT for Vientiane, Duterte kicked up a storm with his declaring a “state of lawlessness” in the aftermath of the Friday night terror bombing that left at least 15 dead in Davao.

The questions raised pertained mostly to the effects on civil liberties of the issuance as did the Marcos declaration of martial law in 1972. Not a few people asked if this was a preview of creeping martial law Duterte-style – to which Malacañang said “No!.”

But why only now? There has been lawless violence in the Philippines long before Duterte noticed it.

Even without his declaration of a state of lawless violence, Duterte as Commander-in-Chief can order the armed forces and the police –which are under him – to move to suppress acts of violence or lawlessness, and set up checkpoints.

Malacañang was quick to point out that the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus and the rights guaranteed under the Constitution are intact.

So what is the difference? It seems that Duterte’s declaration merely confirmed what the people already know – that the country is in a lawless situation or condition.

What added to the alarm was his “inviting the AFP and the PNP to run the country in accordance with my specifications”! What does that mean?

Lawyer Romy Macalintal explained that the President’s declaration is within his power as Commander-in-Chief under Section 18, Article VII, giving him authority to “call out such armed forces to prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.”

He recalled that in 2006 the power of then President Gloria Arroyo to issue Proclamation No. 1017 declaring a State of National Emergency was assailed before the Supreme Court. The tribunal ruled that “the only criterion for the exercise of the President’s ‘calling-out power’ is that ‘whenever it becomes necessary,’ the President may call the armed forces to ‘prevent or suppress lawless violence, invasion or rebellion.’”

The SC sustained Arroyo’s issuance of the proclamation since “owing to her Office’s vast intelligence network, she is in the best position to determine the actual condition of the country.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 6, 2016)

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