Is Cayetano now China’s spokesman?
Although he may have the Philippines’ best interest in mind, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano sounds more like an apologist for China every time he talks about issues involving the conflict in the South China Sea
Reacting to a report released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (Amti) of the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, Cayetano said China had not occupied any new area in the disputed region, arguing that Beijing is not the only government conducting activities there.
The Amti report said that in the last several months China had constructed what appeared to be a new high-frequency radar array at the northern end of Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratlys. It also said Subi Reef had seen tunnels completed that were likely for ammunition storage and another radar antenna array and radar domes.
Furthermore, a wire report quoted the website of China’s National Maritime Data and Information Service as confirming that Beijing had “reasonably” expanded its islands in the South China Sea as part of its defense and military presence in the area.
But according to Cayetano, in the areas occupied by China, it is still building in the same manner that the Philippines has been doing some improvements on Pag-asa island, our occupied territory. His statement almost toed the Beijing line in the Amti report.
In a recent press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said: “It’s completely normal for China to conduct peaceful construction and build essential defense equipment on its own sovereign territory.”
“We believe certain people who have ulterior motives are making mountains out of molehills and stirring up trouble,” Lu added.
Cayetano also sought to allay fears of what Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio described as a Chinese “invasion” of Philippine sovereign waters near Pag-asa. Earlier, Magdalo Rep. Gary Alejano raised alarm over the reported massing of Chinese vessels in the Spratlys.
Images released by Amti confirmed Alejano’s statement, showing nine Chinese fishing vessels and two Chinese Navy ships near Pag-asa.
At a briefing for the House of Representatives’ special committee on the West Philippine Sea, Cayetano said he could neither confirm nor deny Alejano’s statement, but added that the presence of the Chinese ships alone “does not mean anything.”
He also cautioned Alejano against “stirring up” the situation—a warning that is in sync with the China spokesman’s “stirring up trouble” comment in Beijing.
Cayetano said that the situation in the Spratlys is “very stable,” and that “there are reasons for the certain presence of certain vessels” in the area, virtually confirming the reported presence of the Chinese vessels.
It is important to have a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea that will help govern the relationship among countries in the region, he said, but did not mention that it was China itself that has been delaying the crafting of the proposed document for the last 25 years.
During the Asean Summit in Manila in November, it was agreed for the nth time that China and Asean would flesh out a framework for the Code of Conduct within the year. But Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the current Asean chair, observed that it would take years before such a code could be finally adopted.
It is not also guaranteed that China would abide by the Code of Conduct; it is on record that Beijing refuses to honor multilateral agreements or decisions promulgated by international bodies such as that of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which it rejected despite its being a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that created the arbitral court.
The arbitral decision in June 2015 totally debunked China’s nine-dash line that Beijing uses to claim almost the whole of the South China Sea, and recognized Philippine sovereignty over the islands that it now occupies.
(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.”)