POSTSCRIPT / March 30, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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China, Phl rushing Code of Conduct

DIPLOMATIC row is buzzing with talk that China and the Philippines are finalizing their own bilateral Code of Conduct covering South China Sea areas and the Benham Rise continental shelf on the Pacific Ocean side of Luzon.

The reported code is expected to formalize the neighbors’ earlier understanding on maritime issues – such as those on Panatag (Scarborough) shoal and Benham Rise that were already disclosed piecemeal by President Rodrigo Duterte without giving official details.

It is not clear how this bilateral arrangement will dovetail into the more comprehensive Code of Conduct for claimants of disputed SCS areas that is being prepared for this year’s 50th anniversary summit in Manila of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.

Of the 10 members of ASEAN, those with conflicting claims in the region are Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam.

Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told President Duterte in their meeting Monday in Davao City that China is determined to finalize with ASEAN this year the framework of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea.

A meeting on a China-Philippines code is reportedly expected in May to lay down a mechanism for promoting amity and peace in the area, developing mutual trust and understanding, and exploring possible co-operation in tapping maritime resources.

Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said that in his meeting with the President, Zhao took up defense cooperation and capacity building, coast guard coordination, infrastructure financing, and aid for the administration’s drives against poverty and drug trafficking.

• Arriving late, US must catch up on China

IT APPEARS that Zhao has stolen a march on US Ambassador Sung Kim, who presented his credentials to President Duterte only last Dec. 6. His posting was delayed by the US election campaign.

By the time Kim arrived in Manila late last year, his Chinese counterpart was already showering President Duterte – who had announced his pivoting away from the US — with promises of multimillion-dollar investments, infrastructure and easy loans.

Having veered too early and too sharply toward Beijing, Mr. Duterte – even if he now wants to – may find it difficult springing back to a straight path, much more swerving back to Washington.

The US ambassador also went to Davao last Monday, according to Abella, and conveyed Washington’s readiness to help its defense treaty partner the Philippines in terms of military equipment, assistance and training.

If Mr. Duterte, 72, is getting tired in the tug-o-war, he can opt to play it safe. Manila need not be closer to either Beijing or Washington, but be equidistant from both. This stance coincides with his announced “independent” foreign policy.

It is possible that Mr. Duterte, still smarting from his alleged sad experience with America(ns), is still wary of US intentions vis-à-vis the Philippines and the rest of Asia.

Plus, he knows the adage that in world politics, there are no permanent friends nor permanent enemies, but only continually evolving national interests.

At the present stage of the power game, it is no longer as clear as in 1951 (when the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty was signed) against whom the promised American security shield is now to be used.

• Naming barangay chiefs unconstitutional

THE PLAN of President Duterte to cancel the October barangay elections and just appoint the village officials throughout the country is fueling another debate, with the top issue being the move’s being unconstitutional.

Another question raised is on the motive. Many observers are alarmed that the Duterte regime has been busy organizing down to the barangay level and forming various corps for the youth, women, and such sectors.

Remembering Nazi Germany before World War II, some people ask: What is the motive, what is the agenda?

The reply of Mr. Duterte is that on his list of barangay officials, four out of every 10 (40 percent) are either drug dealers/users or protectors. His motive seems to be cleansing.

The proper action, we think, is to file charges against errant barangay officials. This is better than dismissing everybody or dispatching the police or the vigilantes to physically remove the “bad eggs” from the basket.

If the motive is to save money, according to election lawyer Romy Macalintal, the administration can abolish the positions of barangay councilor that were only created by law. That would mean monthly savings of P2.9 billion (294,715 barangay councilors x P10,000 per councilor) or P34.8 billion annual savings (P2.9B x 12 = P34.8B).

He said the President can ask Congress to abolish the positions of barangay councilors so it would be easier for him to monitor the 42,095 barangay captains instead of the entire body of 336,810 barangay officials.

There are 42,095 barangays headed by 42,095 barangay captains and 294,715 barangay councilors (42,095 barangays x 7 councilors per barangay) or a total of 336,810 barangay officials to be “appointed” by President Duterte if he had his way.

Macalintal explains that barangay captains are, per the Constitution, local elective officials who cannot be removed without due process and for a just cause. Any law or executive order declaring as “vacant” all elective barangay positions and appointing their replacements is unconstitutional, he said.

Section 8, Article X, of the Constitution says: “The term of office of elective local officials, except barangay officials, which shall be determined by law, shall be three years and no such official shall serve for more than three consecutive terms.”

He said the charter recognizes barangay captains as “elective local officials” like regional, provincial, city and municipal elected officials.

They shall be elected since, like provincial, city and municipal officials, they are referred to in the Constitution as “elective officials” governed by RA 7160 or the Local Government Code.

Macalintal said: “To do what Mr. Duterte wants to do, not only the law but the Constitution itself must be amended.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 30, 2017)

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