POSTSCRIPT / April 4, 2017 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Benham on west or east side of Phl?

WE AREN’T so sure if we should believe President Rodrigo Duterte when he says in effect that it is all right for us to sleep with the Chinese dragon.

As he is still the president, maybe we should. But it would help if he showed signs of having studied the matter more assiduously and acted more formal, and safe, in striking deals with China.

We are not amused, but distressed, over talk that Somebody in Malacañang had to be shown a map to explain that Benham Rise continental shelf is not in the West Philippine Sea but on the other side (Pacific Ocean, east) of Luzon.

Rappler reported on Twitter last week: “Duterte says China has given him their assurance that they will not claim #BenhamRise as part of their territory.” (He has not shown any formal Chinese statement affirming the alleged assurance. — fdp)

FDPascual tweeted in reaction: “All that should be written down, signed and sealed. And made public.” (Referring to China’s “assurance,” which we believe our lawyer-president should have handled in a more formal manner.)

Teddy Locsin Jr.‏ retweeted: “It is not for China to say it will not claim. It is the law that says China cannot claim it. Period.”

Above notes serve as intro to our observation that in this town where everybody, including media, talks like instant experts, there is so much confusion in the discussion over Benham, Panatag, geopolitics, Strategic Triangle, and such big words.

Maybe a multi-agency group should put together an illustrated primer in English and several native languages, including Mr. Duterte’s Bisaya, explaining as clearly as possible what exactly the nation is talking about.

Just make sure the primer and its electronic rendition on radio and television are not funded from one of those easy loans from China or scripted by Beijing’s best friends forever among us.

• ‘Stop being a spokesman of China’

IT WOULD also help if President Duterte told the nation on whose side he is. His talking at times like a spokesman of China is confusing many of his fans.

Last month, a responsible communist official, the mayor of Sansha City on Hainan island which has (according to them) administrative control over Panatag shoal (Huanyan Dao to them), announced plans to build structures on that fishing ground of generations of Filipinos.

That kicked up a storm, not only because Filipinos have long considered that shoal just 120 nautical miles off Zambales (and over 600 nm from Hainan) as part of Luzon but also because China’s building it up — like it did other shallow WPS areas — poses a security threat to its neighbors.

Instead of expressing concern, Mr. Duterte stood to give public assurance that China was not building anything on Panatag. Yet, he did not present any formal Chinese statement to that effect.

He glossed over the fact that what was officially stated by China’s foreign ministry was simply that they were not building or planning to build any structure on Panatag. Of course, they were not yet building anything at that point.

While the denial was valid at that time, the ministry did not say categorically that China had no buildup plans or that it will never build any structure there. Only China knows if there are such plans, but Mr. Duterte took it upon himself to affirm Beijing’s denial.

• Panatag doesn’t look like just rocks

ON PANATAG (Scarborough) and other WPS topics, we have been exchanging email with lawyer Mario E. Valderrama, founder and first president of the Philippine Institute of Arbitrators (PIArb). Excerpts follow.

Valderrama: “We should be mindful of the facts that (1) the arbitral tribunal declared Scarborough as a rock, and (2) China is in possession and is considered the administrator. So, there would be no violation of the arbitral tribunal ruling if China were to do so.

“On the issue of ownership over Panatag, all that Phl can do is to preserve its claim (just as China has preserved its claim over Kalayaan, and kept quiet afterwards). The issue would most likely not be resolved for a long long time and engaging in a debate at this time is useless.

“Phl should focus on the reefs if it would want to be in a strong debating position. And include the Reed Bank for good measure, as it is a reef within Phl’s Exclusive Economic Zone. But then, Phl should also weigh the costs and benefit and note the realities if it chose this option.”

Pascual: “Re rocks, I’ve been wondering why the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that Panatag is only some rocks. All pictures I’ve seen show that there are more than rocks in that shoal. Some sandy portions even seem to have vegetation.”

Valderrama: “A ‘rock’ is a so-called HTE, or high tide elevation (land formation above water at high tide) that in its natural state could not sustain habitual human or economic life. Rocks are not part of the sea and could be acquired. They are entitled to a territorial sea but not to an EEZ or continental shelf.

“The Kalayaan group of islands are considered ‘rocks.’ Reason: they have no independent source of water.

“Parenthetically and at the last minute, and in spite of its submission on the matter, Phl argued that Panatag should not be considered a ‘rock’ because there are only small protrusions at high tide, most of them corals. But the tribunal did not listen.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 4, 2017)

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