Speaking for the adversary
The Philippine News Agency, the government news wire service run by the Presidential Communications Operations Office, made an outrageous mistake over the weekend: It published a commentary from Xinhua, the Chinese state-run news operation, that criticized the arbitral ruling won by the Philippines against China. After a belated storm surge of criticism, the opinion piece by a Chinese commentator was taken down on Wednesday.
PCOO Secretary Martin Andanar then took PNA to task, issuing a memo directing agency officials “to explain in writing why they should not be held liable for any administrative charges.” He added: “We will take appropriate action against liable PNA officials and/or staff if they are found to commit negligence in carrying out their duties and responsibilities.”
The negligence angle is based on the assumption that the posting of the commentary was essentially an editing error—a failure to catch, and then remove, the anti-Philippine passages in the piece. Andanar himself suggested as much: “Most commentaries of Xinhua News Agency reflect China’s position on certain issues,” he said. “Thus, all reposts from Xinhua and all other partner news agencies for that matter should undergo scrutiny and must be subject to discernment by PNA prior to reposting them.”
This lack of due scrutiny, this failure of discernment, resulted in the disturbing spectacle of an official Philippine government institution allowing the government of another country, its adversary in an important case in international law, to undermine the landmark legal victory achieved by the Philippines.
The part of the commentary that proved most offensive to Filipinos worried about Chinese aggression in the South China Sea was this paragraph: “More than one year after an ill-founded award at a South China Sea arbitration unilaterally delivered by an ad hoc tribunal in The Hague, the situation in the South China Sea has stabilized and improved thanks to the wisdom and sincerity of China and the parties concerned.”
This is wrong on so many levels. The ruling, or “award,” was not in fact ill-founded but very carefully considered; the case was “unilateral” (China did not take part in the process—this is what the commenter must have meant) only because the Chinese conducted a long-term campaign, even though they were in fact signatories to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea which provided for arbitration, to delegitimize the arbitral tribunal. The tribunal was “ad hoc” in the sense that it was constituted specifically for the case (because the rules required it), but it worked according to established protocols and discharged the duty of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The situation in the South China Sea is not “stabilized”—it has only reached a condition, with continuing reclamation and construction and the increased presence of the Chinese coast guard, that is favorable to the Chinese. The very “sincerity” of China is disputed, including by diplomats from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations; the “wisdom” of small countries entering into bilateral negotiations with the largest economic and military power in the region is under question.
But does negligence in fact explain the publication of the offensive commentary? A closer read reveals that the controversial passage reflects the stated or implied policy of the Duterte administration to the issue of Chinese expansionism in the South China Sea. As far as we can tell, the administration has not yet called the very nature of the ruling ill-founded. But everything else in that paragraph has been announced or suggested by the President or either of his two foreign secretaries. In fact, at the close of the Asean ministerial meeting this week, Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano declared that the Chinese had stopped their reclamation and construction projects in the disputed areas. The evidence says otherwise.
The question then: Did the PNA website inadvertently speak for the adversary in an ongoing dispute, or did it in fact, wittingly or unwittingly, reflect official government policy?
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