How to lose what is ours
The national interest demands that the Philippines protest China’s ongoing militarization of the Spratlys and resist every Chinese encroachment on our territory and every infringement of our sovereign rights. The Constitution commands it; international law requires it.
To keep quiet, as the Department of Foreign Affairs under Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has done, or to merely say that there’s nothing new (“sa amin hindi po bago ’yan”), as presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said on Tuesday, is to fall far short of meeting the national interest.
President Duterte’s latest pronouncements are consistent with his previous statements: De-escalate tensions with Beijing. Insisting on our sovereign rights or on the arbitral tribunal ruling will only lead to trouble. We cannot afford to wage war against China; we cannot win a war against China. And, yet again: There’s nothing I can do (“wala na rin akong magawa”).
In explaining its conspicuous silence, the DFA released a statement that essentially emphasized a lack of transparency as part of government policy:
“While appropriate language, whether expressions of condemnation or concern, over certain developments are clearly conveyed through diplomatic channels, it is not our policy to publicize every action taken by the Philippine government whenever there are reported developments taking place in the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.”
Roque struck a more pragmatic note. “We will move on issues we can agree upon and set aside contentious issues for now.”
But the President’s own explanation is the riskiest for the Philippines, because his admission may be construed as official abandonment of some of our sovereign rights.
There is something to be said for pragmatism, of course; there is no denying that China is the preeminent power in the region. But our point: It is also pragmatic for the Philippines not to ignore or abandon other options, other courses of action.
Consider the Duterte administration’s concession to the Chinese on bilateral talks. Previous administrations had declined to accept Beijing’s request for bilateral discussions to ease tensions and resolve disputes in the South China Sea — for good reason.
As the preeminent power in the region, China enjoyed a massive advantage in these one-on-one talks. As the success of the Asean initiative to convince Beijing to sign a Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002 shows, concerted effort by smaller countries working together has a greater potential to influence Chinese conduct.
But as part of its policy of appeasement, the Duterte administration agreed to enter into bilateral talks with China to discuss South China Sea issues. What has this major strategic concession done for the Philippines?
Has it enabled the country to stop China from constructing military-grade facilities — starting with aircraft hangars, radar facilities and barracks — on seven terraformed reefs in the Spratlys? Three of these reefs belong to the Philippines.
Has the bilateral mechanism empowered the Philippines to prevent the arrival, and perhaps the permanent basing, of Chinese military aircraft on Panganiban Reef?
Has it even allowed the country to learn about Chinese movements in the disputed areas in advance?
Seen from different perspectives — constitutional, political, even moral — the failure of the Philippines to defend its prerogatives and sovereign rights when these are undermined is a shortchanging of the nation’s highest interest.
But seen even from the prism of pragmatism, the country’s studied silence, its setting aside of contentious issues, cannot be said to be working.
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