Cayetano in Catch-22 situation
In his heroic but futile attempt to extricate himself from the nightmare caused by China’s unabated buildup in the South China Sea, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano is now in a Catch-22 situation and is caught in a web of conflicting statements and half-truths.
Catch-22, first popularized by Joseph Heller in his wartime book with the same title, is a situation where a person is caught in a dilemma or difficult circumstance from which there is no escape because of mutually conflicting or dependent conditions.
When asked what the Philippine government would do after Chinese planes landed on Panganiban (internationally known as Mischief) Reef, Cayetano said it was ready to take “diplomatic action” against Beijing if the reports were confirmed.
At his regular briefing in Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque echoed Cayetano’s statement, saying the Department of Foreign Affairs was “studying” diplomatic actions vis-à-vis the landing of Xian Y-7 military transport planes on Panganiban Reef and the construction of a Chinese monument on Kagitingan Reef, both within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea.
The two officials are actually pulling our leg because they know fully well that the Duterte administration would not dare question China’s blatant encroachment on Philippine territorial waters and reefs.
How can they when President Duterte has publicly announced his adoration for China’s President Xi Jinping? Before his third trip to China to attend the Boao Forum for Asia, Mr. Duterte said: “I just simply love Xi Jinping.”
So what diplomatic protests are these two officials talking about?
To be candid, there is no way the government would initiate any move that would anger Beijing. For all intents and purposes, the two reefs and other structures that we own and where China has built permanent military and civilian installations have been lost to Beijing and can never be recovered short of going to war with China.
This is a reality that everyone knows except perhaps the minions of Mr. Duterte.
Well-meaning sectors have suggested that the Philippines elevate the issue to the United Nations. But this may just be another futile move. China is a member of the powerful UN Security Council, with veto power. Even granting that the UN would interfere in favor of the Philippines, how sure are we that Beijing would honor any UN action?
We must remember that China has totally ignored the ruling issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in July 2016 recognizing Philippine sovereignty over the areas that we claim and junking China’s ownership of almost the entire South China Sea.
Even the so-called joint oil exploration in the contested area could be just a mirage, a “sweetener” that China has dangled to the Filipino people.
If China owns most parts of the vast South China Sea, where $3 trillion of the world’s maritime trade pass annually, why will it share its resources with the Philippines? On the part of the Philippines, can Cayetano come up with a magic formula to sidestep the constitutional provision that the exploration of the country’s natural resources should be limited to Filipinos?
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, obviously a more seasoned diplomat than Cayetano, has a more realistic statement on the issue. He said in March that any cooperation between the two countries on oil exploration should be done in a “more prudent and steady” manner—which is saying, in effect, that nothing is final and, therefore, there is nothing to rejoice over.
If we go by Beijing’s procrastination on matters affecting the disputed territory, the supposed joint venture could go the same way as the much-publicized Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, which has gone nowhere despite the self-imposed deadline of one year by Asean and China to conclude the deal.
In fact, in the recent Asean Summit in Singapore, there were no press reports about the status of the COC.
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Alito L. Malinao is a former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. He now teaches journalism at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”
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