POSTSCRIPT / November 21, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Has Duterte's hotline to Xi grown cold?

WHEN three Chinese Coast Guard vessels blocked and fired water cannons on two Philippine boats delivering supplies Tuesday to a marine outpost on Ayungin shoal off Palawan, President Duterte should have jumped to call China President Xi Jinping.

The President did not. And six days after that unfriendly and illegal Chinese harassment of “my (Duterte’s) soldiers”, he has not been alarmed enough to call Xi at least to find out if they were still friends as earlier advertised.

The incident occurred as Duterte campaigned for the election as president of his long-time aide (now senator) Bong Go in the May 2022 polls to continue his China-backed infrastructure-building program and protect his rear after he exits in June.

Duterte’s embrace of Beijing has been denounced by his critics as having encouraged the neighbor to grab strategic maritime territory and valuable mineral resources. His silence over the Ayungin incident etches his pro-China bias more clearly in their minds.

Luckily, there was Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. who quickly protested “in the strongest terms” to the Chinese ambassador in Manila and to China’s foreign ministry and put on record “our outrage, condemnation and protest of the incident.”

The supply boats were to deliver provisions to the marines on the BRP Sierra Madre that the navy ran aground in 1999 to become an outpost on Ayungin. Never decommissioned, the rusty vessel with the flag flying valiantly over it serves notice to all passersby that the area is Philippine territory.

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THE harassment of that supply run was not the first nor the only untoward incident in the area.

In September 2019, China’s coast guard also blocked Filipino boats delivering goods to the same outpost. Last April, Chinese navy fast attack craft and coast guard vessels drove away Filipino journalists on their way to Ayungin.

The military has reported last week “unusual movement” nearby of Chinese ships, including 19 militia vessels. Elsewhere, about 45 Chinese ships have been spotted in the past several months near Pag-asa, an island with a thriving Filipino community in the Spratly cluster off Palawan.

Ayungin shoal, Ren’ai Jiao to the Chinese and Second Thomas to most other mariners, is in the Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys. It is well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf.

Locsin stressed that the Philippines has “sovereignty, sovereign rights and jurisdiction” over the area. Pointing out that the Chinese harassment was illegal, he said “China has no law enforcement rights in and around these areas. They must take heed and back off.”

“The Philippines will continue to provide supplies to our troops in Ayungin,” he said. “We do not ask permission to do what we need to do to our territory.”

China’s foreign ministry shot back, saying as usual that their coast guard was merely doing its job of keeping away unwelcomed outsiders. To China, Ayungin is Chinese territory.

* * *

LOCSIN reminded China that “a public vessel is covered by the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty.” Under the 1951 treaty, the US would come to its ally’s aid in the event of a foreign armed attack on its territory, armed forces, or public vessels.

The next day, the US state department said Washington stands with Manila, “in the face of this escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability, escalates regional tensions, infringes upon freedom of navigation in the South China Sea as guaranteed under international law, and undermines the rules-based international order.”

A state department spokesman said the US “strongly believes” that China’s “asserting its expansive and unlawful” claims in the South China Sea “undermines peace and security in the region.”

He added: “The US stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke US mutual defense commitments under Article IV of the 1951 US Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.”

The spokesman reminded China of the 2016 arbitral award issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which “firmly” rejected Beijing’s expansive claims in the South China Sea that includes sections of the West Philippine Sea.

“On July 12, 2016, an arbitral tribunal constituted under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea delivered a unanimous and enduring decision firmly rejecting China’s claims to Second Thomas Shoal and to waters determined to be part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” he said.

 Robredo meets retired generals

IT is probably time that President Duterte talked with his counterpart in Beijing, if only to help lower the temperature in the area wracked by conflicting claims and such incidents as that one near Ayungin.

Feeling the management vacuum, Vice President Leni Robredo took the initiative Thursday of holding a “comprehensive and fruitful discussion” with some retired generals.

She reported after the meeting: “Their expert views are very much appreciated, as we recognize that with threats both present and evolving, we need an institutional, comprehensive, and deliberate approach to national security.”

At the height of his love affair with Beijing, Duterte once referred to the Hague award as a scrap of paper when asked if he insisted on it in his meeting with Xi. He explained that he did not want to invoke it and risk a war he could not win.

In this his final year, however, Duterte seems to have been pulled down to reality, especially with China’s illegal encroachments in Philippine maritime areas and its failure to deliver on many of its extravagant promises of development assistance, investments and grants.

When he once personally went to the airport to welcome Sinovac vaccines shipped by China, he said he wanted to go to Beijing to thank Xi. But no invitation or encouraging response was reported.

Has the vaunted Xi hotline of Duterte, who is now dragging himself to the June 2022 finish line as a lame duck, grown cold? Why is Duterte hesitant to contact Xi to prevent the Ayungin incident from complicating bilateral issues – and even the election of his anointed successor?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 21, 2021)

* * *

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