POSTSCRIPT / June 16, 2019 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Duterte-Xi ties face test in hit-run issue

KEEPING low and quiet will not spare President Duterte from the harsh judgment of a public incensed by the ramming and sinking on June 9 by a Chinese vessel of a fishing boat manned by 22 Filipinos near Recto Bank off Palawan.

Until yesterday, six days after the fb Gem-Vir of Mindoro was hit, sunk and its crew abandoned by a Chinese vessel, not a word – of concern, if not anger — has been heard from President Duterte although he has spoken in various public places about myriad mundane things.

The President should face the issue. After all, it is not his fault that the Filipino boat was struck. It is just his confused and indecisive handling of the hit-and-run incident that is being questioned, especially in the light of his demonstrated partiality to Chinese from the mainland.

When we asked: “Will the President of the Philippines please say something,” his Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. snapped: “He shouldn’t. We his alter egos have said it for him until he overrules us or concurs. That is his job: his is the ultima ratio legis. He must never stoop to listening to the gutter.”

Talking of Alter Egos and stooping, we think one of the biggest problems of Philippine diplomacy these days is having Super Egos randomly altering established practice, and parading their disdain for the lowly masses in the “gutter.”

Of late, not a few citizens have been openly casting doubt on the patriotism of the President, asking aloud where his loyalty lies – if he would side again with the Chinese against Filipinos in the Recto Bank incident.

The crew were plucked from the sea not by the Chinese who bumped their boat but by Vietnamese fishermen who came from some five miles away, according to Junel Insigne, the Gem-Vir captain. He belied a Chinese embassy claim that there were several other Filipino boats harassing the Chinese, prompting them to leave the scene.

One week of indecision is quite long. Duterte and his PR handlers must be having a hard time putting together an official narrative that hews to the facts without offending his friend and benefactor Xi Jinping, China’s paramount leader.

Will the press release of the Chinese embassy the other day belatedly giving their version of the incident provide Malacañang the key talking points it has been waiting for? Note, btw, that the Chinese foreign ministry earlier dismissed the incident as just one of those sea accidents.

Just so President Duterte would not make a statement that he might have to swallow later, his supposedly smart alter egos in the Cabinet do the talking. Their best efforts, however, seemed to have made the mess messier.

Early on, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo strayed from the facts to speculation laced with bravado. He announced that the Philippines would cut diplomatic ties with China if…. That big IF looked like it was borrowed from Duterte’s declaration of war script over Canadian garbage.

Panelo also claimed that the President was “outraged” by the Recto Bank incident, but failed to explain if his anger was due to the harm done to Filipino fishermen or by the incident’s possibly upsetting Duterte’s relations with Xi Jinping.

Without first verifying information fed to him, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana for his part described the incident as a collision, implying that the vessels were both moving and crashed onto each other head-on.

By the account of the survivors, however, the Filipinos’ boat was stationary, already anchored for the night, when it was hit from the rear by the Chinese vessel. As US President Trump would have said repeatedly, “No collision! No collision!”

 Lessons from hit-and run at Recto Bank

LOCSIN risked losing sympathy points for the Philippines when he tweeted “F*ck the international community. It can be bought. This is our fight and in the end ours alone.” He was reacting to a tweet simply saying “Formal protest… talk talk talk. Present it to international community… ask for support.”

As the call mounted for the Philippines to complain to China, Locsin announced in midweek that he had “fired” (that sounded more dramatic than “filed”) a diplomatic protest, but without giving details.

To pry out more information, we asked on Twitter: “How does Duterte’s DFA file a diplomatic protest: Via (1) press release, (2) email, (3) postal mail, (4) messenger, (5) summoning a foreign ambassador and handing him the note, (6) over cocktails, (7) while feasting on a lauriat, (8) telepathy, or (9) by tweeting?” No clarification came.

With everybody busy filling the dead air left by the oddly quiet President, who is supposed to be the nation’s spokesman in foreign relations, we were emboldened to go outside the box and throw in unsolicited advice on Twitter:

The Philippines should not agree to conduct a joint investigation with China of the Recto Bank ramming. Since the hit-and-run incident happened on Philippine territory, some 70 kilometers off Palawan, only Filipinos should deal with it.

Malacañang should learn from the Scarborough (Panatag) blunder of the previous administration of leaving the area in the middle of a standoff with China in that rich traditional fishing ground off Zambales. The Philippine armed forces should dig in at Recto Bank.

The hit-and-run incident is a ready-made reason, if one is needed, for a permanent AFP presence in the area. BRP Ramon Alcaraz which was on patrol there and took the fishermen from the Vietnamese who rescued them, should not leave Recto without a reliever Navy ship.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of June 16, 2019)

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