LATER TODAY, the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague is expected to hand down its ruling on the case filed by the Philippine government regarding China’s territorial claims over much of the South China Sea.
The ruling, widely believed to be in favor of the Philippines, should settle once and for all disputes over who has the right to fish and mine in the disputed areas. In the past months, Filipino fishermen have complained about being “chased away” by foreign vessels, mostly Chinese, from areas in which they had long been fishing. These incidents have highlighted disputes among China and other countries that share the South China Sea coastline. It also promises to influence the conduct of Philippine-China relations in the future, along with our regional neighbors.
So during the Cabinet meeting immediately following the inauguration of President Duterte, it was widely expected that the dispute with China, soon to be decided by the international tribunal, would be top of mind among the Cabinet members. Most prominent and obvious of them would have been Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, who will have to deal with the foreign-policy consequences of the decision, not to mention our standing in the world.
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BUT according to reports, what preoccupied Yasay during that crucial Cabinet meeting was not the pending case or overtures being made by Chinese officials regarding “shared development” of the disputed areas.
Instead, the foreign secretary brought up a seemingly trivial matter, at least in the global scheme of things: the printing of passports by the government printer, APO Production Unit, which has been proceeding apace. Yasay supposedly insisted that the printing of passports, previously done by a private supplier under the supervision of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, be resumed under the old arrangement.
The public doesn’t know what went through President Duterte’s mind, hearing this seemingly trivial matter being brought up during such a crucial meeting. But given the series of faux pas that Yasay has been committing in relation to the China issue, and the allegations of corruption (there are existing cases, in fact) against him, I wonder if the tough-talking former mayor of Davao City hasn’t had occasion to rue his appointment of Yasay. Indeed, this early, Yasay has let his inadequacies in the field of diplomacy reveal themselves. Telling, indeed, is the refusal of Ambassador to the United States Jose Cuisia to serve in a holdover capacity, saying he has “problems” with Yasay regarding the latter’s “integrity.”
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OF course, weighed against the significance of the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision, the issue of the passport printing, which took several years to settle, would seem a minor concern.
But before the contract was given to APO, a certified government printer of security forms under the Presidential Communications Operations Office, the passport “job” was indeed a lucrative operation. Questions, though, had been raised about the wisdom of allowing a private printer to carry out the responsibility of producing passports, which are any country’s “highest form of identity” and which contain vital information on every citizen wishing to travel abroad.
This, critics pointed out, presented a huge security risk, putting confidential information in the hands of a foreign private supplier. Add to this the ability of the private suppliers to impose prices for the passport clearly disadvantageous to the government.
Recall, too, that in recent years complaints had proliferated about the backlog of passports, as well as the quality of the documents that were being produced. Only recently has the backlog been eased, since APO took over the printing and production of passports, addressing as well issues like shoddy binding and the ease with which the old-style passports could be faked. This latter issue not only served as an inconvenience for Filipino travelers, but also put the integrity and reputation of the entire Philippine government on the line.
To address lingering security issues surrounding Philippine passports, APO embarked on a project to design and produce new “e-passports,” which carry computer chips to ensure security for every document, as well as security features in the design and production of each passport, making the passport difficult, if not impossible to fake.
In a few short weeks, the new e-passports will be coming off the line, with passport No. 001 designated for President Duterte.
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BUT not if Yasay will have his way, it seems. Right now, the DFA chief has been making the rounds alleging that APO does not even have its own printing facility (even if he has yet to visit the new APO printing plant in Limay, Bataan, where Bureau of Internal Revenue tax stamps are being printed, along with the new passports).
Yasay has even asked the BSP to resume printing of the passports, even if the latter has informed him that it was no longer interested in printing passports and just wanted to concentrate on printing bank notes.
Suspicious, too, in its timing is the filing of charges by the president of the APO labor union against APO officials regarding the use of sales agents in the early years of the new APO management when it was struggling to put the then-bankrupt agency back on its feet. Perhaps it’s good to remember that one of the last acts of P-Noy was to commend APO among other government-owned and -controlled corporations for not only getting back to healthy footing but also for remitting to the National Treasury, for the first time in many years, profits it has since earned.