Consensus on the South China Sea
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) technocrats must have experienced some unease when President Duterte decided that he would address the 75th UN General Assembly. He would join this annual ritual, even if only in virtual mode, for the first time, since his election in 2016. During his term, he has not found many kind words to say about the UN. He has publicly cursed and threatened UN officials and dismissed the institution itself as worthless.
But the President surprised critics with a speech that praised and proclaimed the UN as “humanity’s essential organization.” He delivered the prepared text without indulging in the ad-libbing familiar to a Philippine audience. He was composed and circumspect, omitting the profanities. He could have played it safe by staying on the COVID-19 pandemic and other broad international concerns. Unexpectedly, he diverted, in a more direct fashion than he had done before, to the sensitive South China Sea issue that he could have easily avoided.
His statement deserves memorializing in full:
“We must remain mindful of our obligations and commitment to the Charter of the United Nations and as amplified by the 1982 Manila Declaration on the Peaceful Settlement of International Disputes. The Philippines affirms that commitment in the South China Sea in accordance with Unclos and the 2016 Arbitral Award. The Award is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.“We firmly reject attempts to undermine it. We welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for—the triumph of reason over rashness, of law over disorder, of amity over ambition. This—as it should—is the majesty of the law.”Unwilling to admit a presidential change of mind, spokesperson Harry Roque discounted the message as nothing new. But UN delegates familiar with the issue would appreciate, as Filipinos did, that the statement was the President’s strongest affirmation of the Arbitral Award and his most categorical rejection of China’s claim to boundaries that would violate the Philippine exclusive economic zone and maritime rights in the South China Sea.
The President has changed his mind before—on peace talks with communist insurgents, the timing of constitutional change, Cabinet appointments—without damage to his popularity. Only the foolish and the dead never change their minds. New facts may justify new views. On the South China Sea issue, even a change in presidential tone should improve his approval rating. Social Weather Stations surveys have consistently shown overwhelming popular support for resistance to Chinese encroachment into Philippine waters and the bullying of Filipino fishermen.
The President’s speech also offers the hope that, going beyond political colors, leaders in the administration and in the opposition can come together to craft a common strategy to promote national goals. Consensus on the principles the President enunciated in his statement will, hopefully, herald broader collaboration among DFA technical experts and those of independent policy think tanks on how best to protect the country’s interests in the South China Sea.
Already suffering from the challenge of the pandemic, the country would welcome a united effort to promote the common good. There seems to be a growing frustration with the tendency of some government officials to cast every policy debate as a battle between good and evil, where only one side has the right answers and no constructive criticism is possible. In recent weeks, the strongest critical comments on administration performance—on COVID-19, PhilHealth, the budget process—have come not from “dilawan” opposition leaders but from politicians and columnists supportive of the President, and from the President himself.
Addressing the Great Powers locked in geopolitical competition, Mr. Duterte pointed out that “escalating tensions benefit no one.” Surely, his admonition to them applies also to the partisans in national politics: “if we cannot be friends as yet, then in God’s name, let us not hate each other too much.” The President can do much to set the tone of political discourse, starting with the rejection of troll-driven fake news and the promotion of dialogue, to—in his words—“pursue a common purpose.”
Edilberto C. de Jesus is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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