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With Due Respect

‘Careful, calculated, calibrated’

That’s how presidential spokesperson Harry Roque described the administration’s strategy on the West Philippine Sea (WPS) dispute.

To Roque’s three “Cs,” President Duterte added another “C,” for “courteous,” in his televised address on May 3 evening: “China remains to be our benefactor. Just because we have a conflict with China doesn’t mean to say that we have to be rude and disrespectful.”

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Recalling his conversation with Chinese President Xi Jinping, our President explained: “Filipinos are hungry, and you are not oblivious to that fact. So, kindly just allow our fishermen to fish in peace, and so there is no reason for trouble. If there is one a-brewing, you call our attention and we can talk immediately to solve the problem.”

However, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. was blunt and calculated in his tweet: “China, my friend, how politely can I put it? Let me see… O… GET THE FUCK OUT.” He likened China to “an ugly oaf forcing your attentions on a handsome guy who wants to be a friend; not to father a Chinese province…”

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Next day, Locsin apologized to his “friend, Wang Yi (China’s foreign minister). Nobody else,” after Roque warned that the President “does not approve the use of profanities, particularly in the field of diplomacy,” and that only the President, not lesser officials, may use cuss words.

I think Locsin’s tweets were borne of pique over the inadequately answered 78 diplomatic protests (as of April 26) his office has filed since President Duterte took office, accusing (on May 3) the Chinese coast guard of “shadowing, blocking, dangerous maneuvers, and radio challenges of the Philippine coast guard vessels.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana was more candid and calibrated (“We will defend what is rightfully ours without going to war”), and dispatched anyway the Philippine Navy’s gray vessels to patrol the WPS. Pushing the calibration a notch higher, the Philippine Coast Guard shooed away seven Chinese militia vessels from the WPS.

Foreign policy is the constitutional prerogative of the Chief Executive. The President, Cabinet members, and certain other officials are granted “a governmental [or executive] privilege against public disclosure with respect to state secrets regarding military, diplomatic and other state secrets” (Senate v. Ermita, April 20, 2006).

For this reason, our officials may withhold information or secrets which in their judgment may jeopardize policies and strategies in dealing with foreign states. They may undertake confusing short-term tactics to win long-term strategies.

This may explain why at times our officials are intentionally ambiguous in their foreign policy pronouncements. “No permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent national interests” is always the underlying truth.

What are the four “Cs” for? What are we fighting for? In short, we are fighting for the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) as applied by the July 12, 2016 Arbitral Award (AA) on our maritime entitlements.

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Unclos is a multilateral treaty and is a part of international law. However, arbitral decisions, like the AA, issued by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) or other tribunals are, as a rule, not parts of international law and are not precedents for future arbitrations. They are binding only on the parties thereto.

I do not wish to devalue arbitrations. As chair of the Philippine National Group in the PCA, I would be the last person to do that. I was just candidly stating a reality. (Aside from me, the only other Filipino members of PCA are International Criminal Court Judge Raul Pangalangan, retired CJ Reynato Puno, and retired Justice Jose Vitug.)

Is the AA a “mere scrap of paper”? The answer deserves a future column. For now, let me just say that China does not recognize the AA arguing that the WPS issues involve sovereignty and ownership over the LAND features therein; issues that only the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has jurisdiction to hear and decide.

This is why, at bottom, I reiterate my plea in my April 25 column to accept China’s challenge to let the ICJ decide the issues involving the land features in the WPS. True, China has a sitting ICJ member; but so do the other great powers (United States, Japan, France, and Germany; in fact, the ICJ president or CJ is an American). Unlike arbitral awards, ICJ decisions have precedent value, are deemed parts of international law, and are invariably implemented by the United Nations.

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TAGS: Maritime Dispute, PH-China relations, Rodrigo Duterte, West Philippine Sea
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