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Commentary

Who’s in charge of PH foreign policy?

/ 05:18 AM November 25, 2017

Lately top officials have aired conflicting viewpoints on foreign policy issues, indicating that the Philippine government is unable to speak with one voice on matters involving relations with other countries.

One instance was when the Philippines voted, along with 135 other members of the United Nations, against a draft resolution on the human rights situation in Myanmar. According to Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, the Philippines took the position being this year’s chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. He described the resolution, which calls for full citizenship for the Rohingya as well as their unhindered access to humanitarian aid, as “very tough” on Myanmar.

In Asean, those who voted against the draft resolution were Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and the Philippines. Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei Darussalam were in favor. Singapore and Thailand abstained.

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Intriguingly, Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr., the Philippines’ permanent representative to the UN, said that the Philippines should have done what Singapore and Thailand did, and that he would push for abstention when the resolution goes to the plenary.

The clash in views between the foreign secretary and the envoy to the UN is strange and unprecedented. Obviously, Locsin was not consulted by the Department of Foreign Affairs when the vote was taken. Or was he just ignored on such a delicate issue?

Late in September, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman publicly chastised Cayetano for issuing a statement on the Rohingya issue which he called a “misrepresentation of reality.”

The Philippines being Asean chair, Cayetano issued a statement at the UN on behalf of the foreign ministers of the bloc condemning the attacks against Myanmar security forces and “all acts of violence which resulted in loss of civilian lives, destruction of homes and displacement of large numbers of people.”

But Aman said Cayetano’s statement was “not based on consensus.” He said Malaysia had made known its concerns but that these were not reflected in the statement.

There is also a brewing conflict on the administration’s position on the Code of Conduct (COC) on the South China Sea, where President Duterte is saying one thing and his foreign secretary is saying another.

The President has said that the Philippines would insist on a legally binding Code during negotiations to start next year. But Cayetano earlier indicated that the Philippines “at this point” would not push for a legally binding COC.

Cayetano said it would be difficult for Asean and China to agree to a legally binding document, which is contrary to what Mr. Duterte has been saying.

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In August, China and Asean signed a “framework” that would guide the drafting of the final COC. But if we go by the statement of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore, next year’s Asean chair, it will “take years” of negotiations before a final COC can be concluded.

Beijing has, in fact, been dilly-dallying on the issue of the COC for the past 15 years. While deliberations on the COC were ongoing, China continued to construct islands and to harass fishermen in the disputed waters.

Even if the Code would be legally binding, what is the guarantee that China will abide by it? It has adamantly refused to honor the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that demolished its so-called “nine-dash line” that it uses to claim sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea despite its being a signatory to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

If China has completely ignored the arbitral court’s ruling, which was backed by international mandate, how much more a regional accord like the Code of Conduct? After receiving billions of pesos in grants and assistance from China, can President Duterte afford to antagonize it by insisting on a legally binding agreement?

Alito L. Malinao is a former news editor of the Manila Standard. He teaches journalism at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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TAGS: foreign policy issues, PH foreign policy, Philippine government
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