WHEN President Duterte told the world Monday from the Batasang Pambansa that China is “in possession” of several strategic areas in the West Philippine Sea, did he concede control by Beijing and weaken the Philippine ownership case? Expect a debate on that question.
President Duterte had said he would teach his critics a lesson in his State of the Nation Address. We did relearn one important point — that in a speech as potentially contentious as his SONA, this President should have weighed every word and not strayed too far from the carefully prepared text.
But President Duterte, despite his arriving an hour late, still found time to meander from his script (his memory permitting), and ended up ad-libbing:
“I cannot go there even to bring the Coast Guard to drive them away. China also claims the property and he is in possession. ‘Yan ang problema. Sila yung in possession and claiming all the resources there as an owner. We are claiming the same but we are not in the position because of that fiasco noong dalawang nag-standoff doon during the time of my predecessor si Albert, ambassador. If I’m correct. I do not know his real name. Tayo ang umatras. Pagsabi niya umatras, that was a kind of a compromise. Tayo ang umatras. Noong umatras tayo, pumasok sila. Marami na.That day, we lost the Spratly and the Panganiban Island. Iyan ang totoo. Walang bolahan ‘yan.” (Lifted verbatim from official transcript)
We had expected Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio to take issue with an assertion that China is in possession – implying control, if not ownership – yet the first to dispute that line were Presidential Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The generals insisted that Duterte said “in position” and not “in possession” which has an entirely different legal implication. Assuming they were not sure about Duterte’s pronunciation, they could have checked the original script and the transcript.
But the President’s chief legal counsel and spokesman Sal Panelo, disagreed and confirmed that Duterte said “in possession” and elaborated on what he meant. Whatever, we think the clumsy confusion could have been avoided had the 93-minute SONA been uncluttered with ad-libs.
Duterte said earlier that he and China President Xi Jinping had a verbal (he probably meant “oral”) agreement to allow their respective nationals to fish in each other’s waters because they, the two leaders, were “friends.”
Many concerned stakeholders asked if the President may unilaterally open fishing grounds to foreigners without first negotiating a fair agreement after consultations, but the question has been mooted by the unhampered fishing by Chinese in Philippine waters with Duterte’s blessings.
Carpio had warned that the Chinese could corner the fish stock in Philippine waters because Filipino fishermen cannot compete. He advised against the President’s mentioning in the SONA the supposed “verbal” fishing deal as, he said, that would formalize it.
• Duterte boys disagree on ‘possession’
ON Chinese possession or ownership of WPS areas, Esperon said: “The President did not say that they are in possession, but that they are in position…. They have the positional advantage right now and they have the equipment to enforce their position.”
Lorenzana backed that up: “Nakaposisyon sila sa islands nila (They’re in position on their islands), but they are not in possession na pag-aari nila ’yung (owning) West Philippine Sea because we are also claiming it.”
Panelo pointed out, however, that Duterte really said “possession.” He explained: “When you’re in possession, isang portion lang ang ipo-possess mo? (Are you possessing just one portion?) Kapag mayroon kang military installation doon… pinapakita na kaya nilang bantayan iyong buong lugar nila (they are showing they can secure their whole area), eh di in possession pa rin sila (so it’s still possession).”
To illustrate, Panelo said a landowner does not need to be physically in the place to be in possession of a property: “Like when you have 10,000 hectares, do you need to be all over the 10,000 hectares to call it your own? There’s such thing as legal possession. As far as they’re concerned sa kanila iyon (it’s theirs). And they are in possession kasi they can enforce it.”
In his SONA, Duterte recalled his talk with Xi: “When I became President and when the M16 rifles were cancelled by America upon the prodding of the US Congress, I found myself in a quandary because reports were already very ripe na there was the passing of arms in Marawi.
“Because the arms were already… mostly in the hands of the police, hands-me-down from the army were quite old and sometimes the bolt that pushes the bullet flies out and the barrel has really become loose….
“So I was forced to go to China. Eh mabuti na lang nasabi ko sa inyo ‘to. Then in China, we had a bilateral. I brought along the military man, Año, the chief of staff then, and all of them, Lorenzana, Esperon, National Security.
“In that meeting, I said — Cabinet members were there — ‘I want to go to my territory to dig oil.’ That was the word, ‘I dig,’ because that is ours. Ang sabi ni President Xi, ‘Well, you know there is a conflict there. Do you think, rather than go there and have a confrontation — not necessarily the grey ships, war ships. But you know a squabble there could lead to something else.’ Sabi niya, we just became friends. And perhaps we can talk about this. But not an outright precipitate move because…. he said it softly, ‘it can mean trouble.’
“If the trouble comes out from the mouth of a president of a republic, anong magawa ko?”