POSTSCRIPT / November 30, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Too late for Duterte to edit China script

IT is too late for President Duterte to expect China to withdraw its belligerent presence at Ayungin shoal and other strategic areas in Philippine waters with his reading a new script for applying the rule of law to minimize untoward incidents between neighbors.

Duterte told a summit between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations last Monday that following the law was the only way out of such incidents as the recent blocking by the Chinese coast guard of boatloads of supplies for Filipino marines stationed at Ayungin shoal off Palawan.

The President told the meeting co-hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the 2016 arbitral award based on it should be used in resolving conflicts in the South China Sea.

But having gained entry by delivering some of the $24-billion aid, loans and investments promised by Xi to Duterte, China does not seem inclined to leave areas it has occupied. In fact, it is now telling the Philippines itself to get out.

Even if the lame-duck president Duterte reads to President Xi the full text of the award of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague that dashed the claim of China over much of the South China Sea, he is not likely to convince the paramount leader.

Nor is Duterte likely to convince forums about the enforceability of the arbitral award that China has refused to recognize  – and after he himself mocked it as a mere scrap of paper.

When Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. protested the Nov. 16 harassing of boats delivering supplies to a marine detachment on the BRP Sierra Madre grounded at Ayungin, China demanded that the derelict be removed from the shoal that it claimed was part of China.

“Ren’ai Jiao (as China calls Ayungin) is part of China’s Nansha Qundao,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said. “China demands that the Philippine side honor its commitment and remove its grounded vessel on Ren’ai Jiao.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denied there was such a commitment. He reminded Beijing that the arbitral court in The Hague has ruled that Ayungin, 195 km from Palawan, is well within the 370-km Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

The Sierra Madre, the Philippine flag flying defiantly from its mast, is supposed to be a sentinel and a warning to intruders. It is also a reminder to Filipinos – and their President – that it takes more than speeches to defend the motherland.

On Friday, President Duterte spoke in the retreat session of the virtual 13th Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) Summit and called for a peaceful resolution of disputes in the SCS.

He said: “There can be no real peace if the strong trample on the weak – just because it can. There can be no other acceptable basis for a just maritime order but the law, particularly the 1982 UNCLOS… All countries, big and small, must adhere to the rule of law, faithfully, consistently. Otherwise, there will be chaos.”

It sounded good and read well on paper. But in Beijing, the foreign ministry spokesman pressed, “China demands that the Philippine side honor its commitment and remove its grounded vessel on Ren’ai Jiao. This position remains unchanged.”

He added that the delivery of food and supplies to Ayungin, completed Tuesday, was only a “provisional, special arrangement out of humanitarian considerations.”

A Chinese coast guard vessel watched nearby when the two Filipino civilian boats manned by the Navy arrived at Ayungin and completed their resupply mission. It was a pathetic scene.

Duterte himself should follow up with Xi. But the two leaders seem to have stopped talking five years after Duterte announced he was turning away from Uncle Sam and started snuggling to his new love.

Now we are unsure if Duterte, “ang ama ng bayan” (the father of the nation), can get Filipinos out of the mess that his affair with Xi has brought them.

 Debt trap concerns raised

SOCIAL media was agog this week with news of China poised to take over Uganda’s Entebbe International Airport for default on debt repayment.

Reports said China has rejected Uganda’s request to re-negotiate toxic clauses in the $200-million loan picked six years ago for the expansion of the airport that is the only international gateway to the country.

The news elicited reactions such as this on Twitter:

purplepoetry88 Dragon @ceebee_em – “Tayo na susunod na biktima nitong evil China! Yung Kaliwa Dam project and recently Malampaya. The govt allowed the onerous provisions sa Kaliwa Dam contract. The govt didn’t bid on Malampaya. Cusi allowed the buyout by Dennis Uy. Mga walang concern sa Bansa.”

The “debt trap” issue has been discussed multiple times in Postscript. On March 28, 2019, we said in part:

President Duterte should order full disclosure to allay fears that the huge Chinese loans he had contracted to finance his ambitious megaprojects mortgaged patrimonial assets and could lead to a “debt trap.”

There are just too many countries that had secured loans from China falling into a “debt trap” – a situation marked usually with the lender taking over valuable assets or strategic sites, or grabbing vital products like oil, used as collateral by the defaulting borrower.

If the President invokes the non-disclosure clause in the loan contracts, would he not be violating the letter and the spirit of Art. II, Sec. 28, and Art. III, Sec. 7, of the Constitution guaranteeing access to information imbued with public interest?

A possible information source is the Monetary Board whose prior concurrence and quarterly reporting to the Congress are required for foreign loans (Art. VII, Sec. 20). Assuming the board has been reporting periodically, will the Congress publish its reports?

The President can make it easier for everybody by disclosing on his own the terms and conditions of the China loans. Such openness in good faith will dramatize his claim that he has nothing to hide.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 30, 2021)

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