Perhaps because President Duterte was once again mysteriously gone from the public eye for over a week, with Malacañang dismissing questions about his whereabouts with the curt explanation that the President was simply “busy,” someone surely had to step in to supply the daily dish of irresistible sound bytes and one-liners that this administration has become known for.
And for that, Salvador Panelo proved himself more than adequate to the task, as the recent days provided a master class on how the presidential spokesperson could shine even brighter in what appears to have become his alternate persona: the unofficial mouthpiece of China.
Asked, for instance, about the concerns raised by defense officials on the now-massive presence of Chinese nationals in the country, thousands of whom work in Philippine offshore gaming operator (Pogo) hubs housing online gambling operations that are prohibited in China but which, as Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has publicly fretted, have in this country curiously established themselves “very near military camps and naval bases,” Panelo’s answer was: “Maybe the problem is we are too security-conscious.”
Think about it. It’s been over three years of the Duterte administration’s much-vaunted foreign-policy pivot to Beijing, and over that period, China has, among other vexing acts: seized and reclaimed islands in the South China Sea; militarized them by installing missiles, runways, depots despite Beijing’s earlier pronouncements that it would not; harvested and/or destroyed vast swaths of coral and marine life; harassed and drove Filipino fishermen off their fishing grounds, and even rammed one boat and then abandoned the stricken fishermen; swarmed Pag-asa Island with a flotilla of Chinese vessels, as if imposing a blockade on the Philippine-held island; and, most recently, had research ships and warships repeatedly trespassing on Philippine waters, their identification systems tellingly turned off.
Is Panelo the only Filipino left at this point who’s unaware of the fact that, in the matter of China and the Philippines, China has long ceased to be a disinterested party? This is a country with a vested interest in getting one over its neighbor, with a claim of territorial ownership so sweeping that it would gobble up as much as 80 percent of the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, according to Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. And all its actions so far, from its contempt for Philippine jurisdiction and interests in the South China Sea to its ingratiating billions of promised aid to the Duterte administration, appear premised on advancing that battle plan.
But, to Panelo, the jolting spectacle of a superpower actively engaged in undermining Philippine interests flooding Manila and other cities with hundreds of thousands of its citizens, ostensibly for businesses that then locate themselves near sensitive Philippine military installations and whose workers “could be tapped for information-gathering purposes,” as no less than the Philippines’ defense chief has warned, is all but silly pearl-clutching: “Maybe the problem is we are too security-conscious.”
As for the even more staggering news of as many as 13 instances of Chinese warships entering Philippine waters without permission, with their Automatic Identification Systems (AIS) pointedly turned off, despite demands by the Philippine Navy to establish contact with Philippine authorities, Panelo — and lamentably even Lorenzana — could only manage the feeblest description of that inflammatory behavior, as an “irritant.” Mosquitoes, flies and idiotic public officials, one would think, are irritants; the flagrant, repeated and unacknowledged trespassing into one’s waters by a hulking neighbor is way more than that.
Panelo’s work downplaying his own country’s concerns over Chinese expansionism wasn’t done, of course. When it came time for the Chinese ambassador to respond to the Pogo issue, Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson and concurrent chief legal counsel was more than happy to amplify from his Malacañang pulpit what he said was the text message the envoy sent him: “What if we also think that your overseas workers are also spying on us? What can you say about that?”
Sen. Panfilo Lacson voiced the gagging reaction felt by many at that unbelievable statement (Lorenzana: “That’s the most preposterous statement I’ve heard in a long while”) — and Panelo’s reckless parroting of it: “Has the presidential spokesman,” Lacson asked, “switched from Chinese embassy defense counsel to spokesman?”
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