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Ayungin Shoal: Duterte’s scared statement

When I was growing up in Tondo, this was a common scene: A tough guy commits a crime and is brought to trial. In Tondo at that time, it was almost impossible to get witnesses to testify in a criminal trial, particularly if the accused was a tough guy. In the few times some witnesses came forward, the witness would make halting statements, stuttering frequently, mispronouncing words, and making furtive glances at the accused.

When President Dutere spoke before the recent Asean-China dialogue, China had just used water cannons to prevent two supply ships from the Philippines to reprovision the Philippine Marine detachment in Ayungin Shoal. Mr. Duterte’s statement on the incident was supposed to reprove China for the untoward incident. However, his demeanor showed otherwise. Like the scared witness in Tondo, Mr. Duterte stuttered, mispronounced words, and delivered a halting statement without his usual bravado.

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Contrast this with his demeanor when he castigated Sen. Richard Gordon and the other senators in the Pharmally scandal. On those occasions, Mr. Duterte spoke in assertive terms. It appears he excels when defending Chinese nationals but falters when defending our national interest.

Note further that in incidents like the one in Ayungin Shoal, the victim nation invariably indicates what follow-up action it will take to prevent recurrence of the incident. In this case, Mr. Duterte was presented with a golden opportunity by China to submit the case to the United Nations for action. Since the Security Council will be paralyzed by a Chinese veto, this issue will be taken up in the UN General Assembly (UNGA) under the Uniting For Peace Resolution. But Mr. Duterte was silent on what follow-up actions he would take, meaning he would not elevate the issue to the UN General Assembly.

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The President knows the value of a follow-up action in a dispute. He did this against Gordon whom he accused of mishandling Red Cross funds; he also threatened further exposés against the senator. But in the Ayungin case, no follow-up action means China can keep on interdicting our resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had sent a strongly worded protest note with his usual embellishments that this was the nth protest note he has sent to China on the dispute. Locsin overlooks one definition of an idiot: a person who keeps on running the same experiment, using the same inputs and procedure, but who expects to get different results. Endless protests will not change Chinese conduct in the South China Sea (SCS).

Mr. Duterte’s inaction beyond his statement is most unfortunate. China’s action has drawn widespread condemnation, including one from the European Union. A country’s posture on an international issue is not constant and can shift later on. Thus, the support we have today on the SCS dispute could be gone tomorrow.

Peace in our part of the world is the biggest casualty. An overwhelming vote in the UNGA against the Chinese action may serve as a deterrent to Beijing and end the SCS dispute. But this route is closed. Instead, Locsin together with then Palace spokesperson Harry Roque had propagated the lie that if we submitted the issue to the UN, we would be relitigating the West Philippine Sea dispute. The UNGA is a political body and does not accept litigation cases.

The arrangement made by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana with the Chinese ambassador, allowing two resupply ships to visit Ayungin Shoal without Chinese interference, is unsatisfactory and means that future resupply missions would need Chinese approval. It is high time that we emphasize that the Ayungin Shoal is no longer disputed territory. It became our territory when The Hague tribunal declared China’s nine-dash line as spurious. All we have to do is submit the issue to the UN for affirmation.

The resolution of the SCS dispute will have to await the incoming administration in 2022. Our voters should elect a leader who will not be intimidated by Xi Jinping and who will fight for our rights in the SCS.

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Hermenegildo C. Cruz is a retired career diplomat. He served as Philippine ambassador to the United Nations and was a member of the Asean group that successfully petitioned the UN to require Vietnam to leave Kampuchea (Cambodia). Vietnam had invaded Kampuchea in 1979.

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TAGS: Ayungin Shoal, Commentary, Hermenegildo C. Cruz, Maritime Dispute, Rodrigo Duterte
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