POSTSCRIPT / May 16, 2021 / Sunday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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It’s not a joke if it still has to be explained

A SUPPOSED “joke” is not a joke if one has to explain five years later that the remark he had made in all seriousness was actually just a joke. Everybody can then laugh either at the joke or at him.

Case in point is the celebrated “jet ski” presidential campaign spiel in 2016 of then Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. The Joker-in-Chief has been joined lately by his lawyers explaining that, indeed, he was then just joking.

During the presidential debate that year, he vowed to ride a jet ski to one of the Spratly isles occupied by China and plant the flag to claim it as Philippine territory. Never mind if he would be killed doing it, he said, for after all he had a secret wish to die a hero.

Hearing him say that, the crowd broke into applause… To cut the story short, he won the presidency with 16 million votes.

But with China having occupied more Philippine maritime areas, Duterte is now being asked what ever happened to his “jet ski” promise. In his last two TV shows, he said he was just joking then, adding the insult that those who took his joke seriously were stupid.

Duterte has embellished his script with an afterthought – that he actually bought a second-hand jet ski and ordered spare parts for it. But like delayed COVID-19 vaccines, he claimed the parts have not arrived until now!

His imagination on overdrive, Duterte also said he discovered while plotting his route to the Spratlys that there were no gas stations in the high seas (RSA, where are you?), so how could he reach the isle and plant the flag? To complicate matters, he could not swim!

We may have just discovered a weapon for mass destruction of WPS interlopers. Let Duterte entertain them with the same earnestness as when joking with his countrymen – and the survivors of the Wuhan veerus on the mainland might just all die laughing.

Google says that a joke is a thing that someone says to cause amusement or laughter, especially a story with a funny punchline.

But in the video of that debate where he used the “jet ski” line, Duterte did not sound or look like he was joking. In fact, he was so convincing that he inveigled 16 million Filipinos — who he now says were stupid to have believed him — to elect him president.

Now five years too late, he is explaining that that promise to wrest back areas occupied by China was just a “campaign joke”. We think, however, that his having to explain the supposed joke is proof that it was not such.

 Duterte, Roque statements can favor China

WE cringed watching presidential spokesman Harry Roque display his knowledge of international law and history in a manner that seems to strengthen not the Philippines’ cause but China’s claim over certain areas in the West Philippine Sea.

Since the President has adopted Roque’s arguments and citations, we fear that their combined public statements are likely to be used by China against Philippine interests in claiming and occupying choice areas in the WPS.

An example is Julian Felipe Reef, which was the focus of recent hot news when Chinese boats and militia swarmed around it until the departments of foreign affairs and national defense protested and demanded their pullout.

Located 324 km away from the coastal town of Bataraza in Palawan, Julian Felipe is within the 370-km EEZ of the Philippines, but is outside the country’s territorial sea extending just 12 nautical miles (22.22 km) from the shore.

The coastal state (the Philippines) has sovereignty over its territorial sea, but does not enjoy sovereignty – only sovereign rights – over its EEZ. The zone is open to mineral exploration and exploitation, among other activities, by Filipinos. But foreign ships and planes may exercise innocent passage and overfly the zone.

While Julian Felipe is inside the EEZ (370 km), it is outside our territorial waters (22.22 km). Roque has pointed out that Julian Felipe is close (22.22 km) to Vietnam-occupied Grierson Reef and China-held Hughes Reef. These reefs generate their own territorial waters that overlap, making delineation problematic.

There are other similar conflicts in the WPS arising from overlapping EEZ or territorial waters of neighboring claimants.

Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal some 220 km off Masinloc, Zambales, is close enough to the Luzon coast to fall within the Philippine EEZ, but it is outside Philippine territorial waters. It is open to innocent passage of seacraft and overfly by aircraft of other nations.

Since Panatag is recognized under the 2016 Arbitral Award at The Hague as “high-tide features” (rocks), it can generate its own territorial sea for whoever controls it. Those rocks, which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own, have no EEZ or continental shelf.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration did not rule on who has sovereignty over Panatag. That issue was not raised before it by the Philippines, the complainant, since the PCA is not the proper United Nations body to rule on that.

If China insists on occupying Panatag, and the Philippines is unwilling or unable (as Duterte confesses) to stop it, Beijing could gain a strategic toehold in the area so close to Zambales and Subic Bay even if the shoal is 980 km from Hainan, the nearest Chinese landmass.

These legal and factual details are not all favorable to the Philippines and could be exploited by China. We are uncomfortable hearing Duterte and Roque publicly admitting them in a manner that could tie down the Philippines in future formal discussions with other countries.

Duterte cannot stand, for instance, before the PCA or the International Court of Justice, and plead that he and Roque were just joking or thinking aloud.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 16, 2021)

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