Cayetano as top diplomat
To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy,” said the author Will Durant. That appears to be a rephrasing of the maxim that says, “A diplomat must always think twice before he says nothing.”
Perhaps someone should forward these reminders to Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano, the former senator whose stint thus far as the country’s top diplomat seems to be increasingly marked by one unnerving miscue after another.
In May, after President Duterte dropped the bombshell that, during their bilateral meeting in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping had threatened war on the country if it attempted to
drill for oil in the South China Sea, Cayetano’s words were hardly an assertion of Philippine sovereignty or, at the very least, dignity — that it didn’t deserve to be bullied and browbeaten in any way by its giant neighbor.
Instead, Cayetano appeared to have taken up the cudgels for the other side: “Our friend China was just being frank,” he said. “There was no bullying or pushing around, it was not a threat.”
That assurance would have sounded valid were it not for China’s all-too-fresh history of unfriendly acts toward the Philippines: its regular broadsides against the Philippines’ rejection of its so-called nine-dash-line map claiming historic ownership of almost the entire South China Sea (a claim that has been invalidated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague), and, worse, its unilateral occupation of disputed islands that it has turned into military outposts. Surely Cayetano was not unaware of all that?
That misappreciation of reality was present again in Cayetano’s latest mishap, when he admitted that the Philippines — of all countries — had spearheaded the move to tone down the joint statement of the recent Ministerial Meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila. Specifically, he wanted to scrub the communiqué of the phrases “non-militarization” and “land reclamation,” referring to China’s actions in the South China Sea, because the wording was allegedly no longer “reflective” of the current situation. “They’re not reclaiming land anymore, so why will you put it again this year?” he said.
Where did Cayetano get that piece of intelligence, which appeared to echo Beijing’s position?
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi essentially said the same thing: “I want to tell everyone here that China stopped its land reclamation two years ago, or in other words, we have already concluded our land reclamation projects. If anyone wonders who is carrying out these kinds of activities, it is definitely not China.”
If only. Just days after Cayetano and Beijing’s statements, the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank, released photos dated Aug. 5 showing that China in fact continues to beef up its occupied islands, belying the claim of a cessation in activities that would heighten tensions in the area. According to the think tank, “China’s own reclamation work did not end in mid-2015 with the completion of its artificial islands in the Spratlys. Beijing continues to reclaim land farther north, in the Paracel Islands.”
Those islands are also claimed by Vietnam, hence that country’s strong insistence that China be called out in the Asean statement for its actions — a position that eventually prevailed.
The Philippines, meanwhile, emerged from that meeting not only weak-willed but, distressingly, also apparently clueless about the real score. Unfortunately, the disconnect was amplified and codified as the Philippines’ official position by its foreign secretary.
Diplomacy is a critical game in these increasingly hair-trigger times. Cayetano needs to step up in his job.
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