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Editorial

Shell game

/ 09:08 AM April 23, 2019

For the nth time, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. provoked a backlash over his Twitter posts, this time for his rash remarks dismissing Chinese poaching and the harvesting of giant clams in Scarborough Shoal as just about “fucking food” (he spelled it out as usual).

So much for the foreign secretary as the country’s top diplomat, the supposed epitome of discretion and considered conduct. Why Locsin is bloviating on sensitive foreign policy on Twitter is, first of all, a travesty and an abiding invitation to disaster, given his preening regard of himself as a provocateur. Asked, for instance, what the government is doing about China’s wanton destruction of the marine ecosystem in the country’s exclusive economic zone, Locsin replied with a howler: “I’m not going down in history as a clam defender, okay? It’s a complaint; we’re looking into it; but these are just fucking food; no one goes to war for clams (maybe Oysters of Locquemariaquer) but they just happen to be OUR food. They should pay for them like fish in the market.”

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Perhaps shell-shocked by the resulting public outrage, Locsin eventually deleted this tweet. But it seemed he was only warming up, because yet another asinine statement dribbled out from his Twitter-itchy fingers: “We had no idea there were clams there,” he said. “I will not let this country go down to war or lose a useful economic partner just over environmental concerns for a world I care nothing about.”

Apparatchiks in Beijing must be having a hearty chuckle reading these tweets and what they indicate: that no less than the Philippines’ foreign secretary has no clear grasp of what is at stake.

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Apart from its violation of Philippine sovereignty and territorial integrity in the South China Sea, China’s illegal and destructive fishing, poaching and island-building in the region were already deplored in the arbitral ruling won by the Philippines against China in 2016. The ruling noted that, by the end of 2013, China had created more than 12.8 million square meters of artificial islands on seven features in the Spratlys through dredging, which had destroyed fragile ecosystems and coral reefs that served as breeding ground for fish.

Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, also said that China has destroyed over 40,000 acres of reef due to its island-building in the area.

The South China Sea is said to be home to 34 percent of the world’s coral reefs, underscoring the value of the waters to the food security of many nations. It was this “most massive, near permanent and devastating destruction of the environment in humanity’s history” that prompted former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales to file a complaint for crimes against humanity against Chinese President Xi Jinping before the International Criminal Court.

Before he lost it (again), Locsin had appeared to be in agreement with that sentiment, tweeting: “We caught them doing that recently, filed a diplomatic note, and will be taking legal action.” That was a notable change in tune from the Duterte administration’s default tremulous tone toward Beijing, echoed by presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo who described the harvesting of clams as an “affront to our territory and our sovereignty.”

No kidding. What could account for this sudden shift in the wind? The most probable reason is not a newfound fortitude against Beijing, but merely expedient political calculation: The looming May 13 polls are regarded as a referendum on President Duterte’s administration, and while his senatorial candidates are dominating the surveys, those same surveys show that as much as 84 percent of Filipinos disapprove of Malacañang’s inaction over China’s aggression, and a majority of Filipinos also back the case filed by Del Rosario and Morales in the ICC.

The Palace may be hoping that its pinballing statements on the matter, from Panelo’s rationalizations of the swarming presence of the Chinese naval militia near Pag-asa Island just weeks ago to the abrupt tougher language over the wholesale harvesting of giant clams, could somehow make the public believe that the administration has been knocked to its senses at last. But those whiplash-inducing maneuvers induce no credibility or sense of cogency whatsoever about this government’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Beijing, only the notion that it has no compunction about playing a shell game with the public for the most cynical of reasons—to buff itself up at the polls. In that sense, Locsin’s unhinged and unfiltered online conduct may still be of some use—as a jolting reminder to voters of the basic insincerity at the top when it comes to the China question.

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TAGS: Inquirer editorial, Maritime Dispute, Scarborough Shoal, South China Sea, Teodoro Locsin Jr., West Philippine Sea
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