POSTSCRIPT / March 23, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte just trying to confuse China?

SOMETIMES, it pays to confuse the enemy. But in the case of President Rodrigo Duterte talking on China issues, the confusion that he sows does not work on the Chinese. By now, they know exactly how his mind operates.

We have stopped guessing what Mr. Duterte means when he talks. When we are sometimes confused by his declarations, all we do is wait for the clarification that is sure to come from his echo chamber in Malacañang.

The clarifications of presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella are actually corrections or substitutions of remarks the President should not have made.

When the President blurted out Sunday that he would not go to war over Beijing’s plan to put up structures on Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, he did not confuse the Chinese but his own people because what they wanted was not war but vigorous, relentless protesting.

The next day in Myanmar, Mr. Duterte vowed to do battle if China starts extracting mineral resources such as oil and uranium in disputed areas. He said he would tell them, “We own it. You claim it by historical right, by judgment I won, and it’s mine.”

By that time, however, we think it would be too late to “make habol.” The law cannot protect those who sleep on their rights.

Justice Secretary Vitaliano Aguirre has entered the picture, saying the government will protest by way of a legal action in the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, which ruled in July last year that Beijing’s encroaching on most of the South China Sea was illegal.

But a protest at The Hague will not quell quickly the anxiety over possible Chinese preemptive control of Panatag, a traditional fishing ground of Filipinos, lying just 250 kilometers east of Zambales but 2,500 kilometers west of Hainan, the nearest Chinese land mass.

Malacañang’s clarification notwithstanding, there is a risk that the President’s voicing helplessness in the face of Chinese aggressiveness may firm up a loose belief that the Philippine claim is weak.

• Readers deplore timidity, offer advice

AGUIRRE’S announcement was one of several executive voices heard, including those of the presidential spokesman, the defense department and the foreign office. This has elicited criticisms that the government does not speak with one voice, adding to the confusion.

With the administration’s slow and scattered reaction, we get buried in a flurry of unsolicited advice. Reader Federico Infante Lojo of Lipa City deplored the mess and thoughts of surrendering to the Chinese. We emailed back:

“I’m beginning to think of Leadership Change (by whatever efficient means) if our President refuses to stand up to the Chinese. But change Duterte with whom? Leni is definitely prettier than Rody, but I see no indication that she would perform better.

“What if we outsource na lang the Philippine government to the US? But I think the US will scream No!

E kung coup d’etat? Ako baka papayag na siguro, basta walang mass killing at kasama sa ruling military junta si General (DNDsec) Lorenzana at hindi kasali si sinator Trillanes.”

• Phl expectations were not met

LAWYER Mario E. Valderrama, founder and first president of the Philippine Institute of Arbitrators (PIArb), emailed: “The zonal system in UNCLOS has something to do with the allocation of resources. It cannot be used as basis for territorial claims.

“Phl must do what it has to do to preserve its claims over the territories and its rights to the resources. At the very least, though, Phl must do so using the correct premises. To be able to do this, Phl should know what it, and other countries, could do and not do under UNCLOS and international law.

“For instance, the power of the presidency to enter into agreements with other countries involving resources in its EEZ and ECS is practically unbridled. So, instead of focusing on old laws which may not even be applicable, given the international nature of the waters outside Phl’s territorial waters, maybe the legislature should instead focus on putting up controls over presidential discretion. With due regard to the fact that we are talking about resources in areas that are international and outside Phl’s territorial waters.

“Phl may also want to re-evaluate its approach on how to deal with the disputes. During the last administration Phl was, substantially, in the right. Nevertheless, and among other things:

“We were led to believe that China could be shamed. It did not happen. China just stuck to its defense that the UNCLOS tribunal has no jurisdiction.

“We were led to believe that the world will support Phl. It did not happen. Phl did not even get support from ASEAN; the most that Phl got was lip service from some countries. Except, perhaps, from Japan, which even then could not be said as sufficient.

“Phl expected support from the US. It did not happen. The US said that it is neutral in the territorial disputes, that the mutual defense treaty does not cover the Phl claimed territories. While the US invited Phl to join in the former’s FONOP, the interest of the US — to maintain its supremacy in the SCS that it held since the time of Admiral Perry — is not exactly the concern of Phl.

“In contrast, Phl’s position in the present issues (Scarborough and Benham) is quite confused, and in some cases even based on obviously false premises.

“If the old approach, when Phl was substantially in the right, could be characterized as a failed approach, how could it possibly succeed with respect to the present issues?”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 23, 2017)

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