Slow boat from China
Apparently, President Duterte likes to use his strategic skills, for which he acquired a reputation during his long tenure as mayor of Davao City, to keep his own government off balance. Take the prolonged presence of Chinese vessels over Benham Rise, the underwater landmass northeast of Luzon that the United Nations has already declared part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
His own defense secretary said last week that he was worried about Chinese ships lingering in the area: “The very concerning thing is they have several service ships plying this area, staying in one area sometimes for a month as if doing nothing. But we believe they are actually surveying the seabed.”
His own Department of Foreign Affairs sent a note to the Chinese embassy last Friday seeking an explanation for the presence of the Chinese vessels: “The Philippines has expressed concern about the reported presence of Chinese ships in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf as Philippine waters.”
And on the same day his own spokesperson — the person whose job it is to speak for the President — also conveyed anxiety on behalf of his principal: “We are concerned about the presence of a Chinese ship in Benham Rise, which has been recognized by the United Nations as part of the Philippines.”
But the following Monday, Mr. Duterte revealed that he had given the Chinese permission ahead of time. “We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask, ‘How are things going? What is your purpose?'”
A helpful Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson offered more details. “In response to the Philippines’ concerns about activities by Chinese marine research vessels, foreign ministries of the two countries have had a friendly exchange of views last January to sort out the facts and properly address the issue.”
Apparently, part of the President’s China strategy is to confer with the Chinese but leave his most senior security official, the foreign affairs department supposedly engaged in a friendly exchange of views with China, and his own spokesperson out of the loop.
Is it any wonder that a critic of the President, like Sen. Antonio Trillanes, will ask the one government institution tasked to cooperate with the President on foreign relations to demand clarification from Malacañang? Trillanes filed Senate Resolution No. 331 on Wednesday, arguing that there was “an immediate need to look into the inconsistencies between the statement of President Duterte and Defense Secretary Lorenzana regarding the presence of Chinese surveillance vessels in the Benham Rise area, as it potentially threatens the territorial integrity of the country, and could lead to a large geopolitical dilemma thereby diminishing the Philippines’ assertion of sovereign rights.”
We note that Trillanes himself is no stranger to back-channel negotiations with Chinese emissaries, and cannot therefore be classified as necessarily antagonistic to the Chinese government. We also note that Muntinlupa Rep. Ruffy Biazon, the son of a former Armed Forces chief of staff and like the President a consistent advocate of the death penalty, will file a similar resolution in the House of Representatives. He said it was time for the country to “take decisive measures to prevent China from creeping into Benham Rise since our country’s sovereignty is at stake.”
To be sure, a statement on the Chinese foreign ministry’s website quotes the spokesperson thus: “I wish to reiterate that China fully respects the Philippines’ rights over the continental shelf in the Benham Rise and there is no such thing [as] China challenging those rights.”
But the foreign ministry is much the less influential government agency in Beijing when it comes to foreign relations; the People’s Liberation Army has often contradicted it, for instance in South China Sea issues, and it is the military’s voice that carries weight. We should not forget what happened in 2012, over Scarborough Shoal: Manila negotiated with the foreign ministry in good faith, only for the Chinese military to step in.