POSTSCRIPT / May 20, 2021 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Loose talk on WPS tightens China’s grip

“LOOSE lips sink ships” was one of the catchy American slogans during the second World War admonishing servicemen and citizens against careless talk that could undermine the national interest in favor of the enemy.

Similar security safeguards should be required, like pandemic face masks, of top officials who recklessly disclose state secrets and telegraph government moves to protect the Philippine domain against incursions by Chinese and other interlopers.

While it may be true that there are hardly any more secrets in this country run by garrulous officials, there should be a modicum of confidentiality on matters whose disclosure could help enemies of the state, especially those with demonstrated aggressive intentions.

Free and open debate is part of our libertarian setup where freedom of expression is constitutionally protected to the extent set by law, but the boundaries sometimes shift depending on who claims to be enforcing the rules.

Like other citizens, we wonder why President Duterte declared in one of his soliloquies on TV that the 2016 award given by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague to the Philippines on a maritime dispute with China was a mere scrap paper fit for the trashcan.

Was it executive privilege, a fit of reckless imprudence, a latent pro-China bias surfacing, or something else so compelling that prompted Duterte’s unilateral declaration against Philippine interests? Loose lips?

Another time, Duterte said China is in “constructive possession” of the disputed WPS area, that it completely controls the place, and the Philippines or any force on earth cannot do anything about it short of waging war. Was this a virtual admission of defeat, of surrender?

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LIKE many concerned citizens, we share the misgivings of legal experts that the declaration by the sole spokesman of the country in foreign relations may have damaged, hopefully not beyond repair, the Philippine position on issues pertaining to Philippine maritime areas.

While the “loose lips” admonition served a country at war in a bygone era and similar present-day conflicts have taken more sophisticated forms, there remains a veneer of law that binds bona fide members of the global community.

Duterte’s statements may have tied the hands of future presidents who intend to press the enforcement of the arbitral award based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that he had consigned to the wastebasket.

High-caliber lawyers have a talent for arguing any legal point any which way the client wants, but it could require superpowers to argue back to life the scrap paper trashed by a local politician masquerading as a sovereign ruler.

One option for whoever gains control of the worsening situation is to force a Reset and to disown before the world the defeatist declarations of the joker dragging the country to the cliff.

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A WAY must be found, meanwhile, to stop the parade of lawyers, and a supposed eyewitness to history, being trotted out to add to the pile of documents and declarations that China could mine for legal nuggets to serve its interests.

After another TV episode on Tuesday starring former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, Duterte may have sensed that his cast was starting to break into too many voices.

He had Secretary Harry Roque announce that henceforth nobody will talk about WPS issues except the President (the spokesman in foreign affairs), the spokesman’s spokesman (that is Roque) and, according to Roque, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr.

As we understand it, Executive officials outside the trio are barred from talking or giving their opinion on the subject. We hope that the tightening of the speaking parts, although coming rather late, will help reduce the confusion and cacophony.

In a meeting Monday of Duterte’s pandemic task force, he reportedly said: “This is my order now to the Cabinet and to all and sundry, talking for the government, to refrain discussing West Philippine Sea with anybody.

“If we have to talk, we talk and it would just be among us, and there is one spokesman. Harry (Roque, the presidential spokesman) will do it. Now you get the picture.”

Roque then told the media Tuesday that Secretary Locsin (whose finger is itching to press his Twitter trigger) is also authorized to speak on the WPS issue. “That’s the decision of the President,” he explained.

Asked whether the National Task Force for the WPS would no longer release information on disputed areas, he said: “Reports of the NTF are forwarded to the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) and they would determine if they will file diplomatic protests.”

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WE’LL soon see how the new communication flow (the substance is another thing) will improve the lives of Filipinos and not work in favor of their Chinese friends.

The televised meeting of the Cabinet cluster showed Duterte, 76, all ears to the counsel given to him “gratis et amore” by the 97-year-old Enrile, who offered him such management tips as:

* The President should not allow himself to be distracted by his critics whose only goal is to bring him down.

* He should cultivate closer relations with China, a good neighbor, and not be too trusting of the United States.

* On foreign policy, the President is responsible only to the Filipino people, not to any specific person. “No one else can frame or formulate foreign policy except President Rodrigo Roa Duterte.”

Enrile kept jabbing at former Sen. Sonny Trillanes who he said should explain why he was so influential that then-President Noynoy Aquino named him as backchannel negotiator bypassing even the regular Philippine ambassador in Beijing.

Taking to Twitter, Trillanes shot back: “Why did PNoy appoint me as backchannel negotiator? Because he found me trustworthy unlike Enrile.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 20, 2021)

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