But what about the Panatag fishermen?
After the lavish dinners tendered by Chinese officials followed by the obligatory mo-tai toasts, the question now is: What has President Duterte’s state visit done to assure the Philippines that it would be given a fair deal in its maritime row with China?
While billions of dollars in soft loans for public and private ventures were pledged, Beijing adeptly sidestepped the maritime issue during the President’s visit. Before the visit, Filipino fishermen were hopeful that they would be able to return to their traditional fishing ground in Panatag Shoal without being harassed by the Chinese Coast Guard. Panatag, or Scarborough, Shoal was seized by China in 2012.
But according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, during the bilateral talks between President Duterte and President Xi Jinping, the return of Filipino fishermen to Panatag Shoal was not discussed. Liu said the two leaders instead agreed to “strengthen fishery cooperation” in the South China Sea—diplomatese which means that China will continue to dominate the disputed territory.
Obviously, Beijing has given the Philippines the runaround on the maritime issue, and there is nobody to blame but the Duterte administration itself.
For one thing, the administration made an egregious diplomatic breach by announcing early this month, through leaks from Malacañang, that Mr. Duterte was to visit China. Any diplomat will tell you that this is not done because a state visit should always be announced by the host government. For example, it was the White House that formally announced that Chinese President Xi would make his first state visit to the United States on Sept. 25, 2015. The White House announcement included the itinerary of the visit and the holding of bilateral meetings between Xi and US President Barack Obama.
In Mr. Duterte’s visit to China, this standard protocol was not followed. We practically “begged” China to invite us, thus weakening our bargaining position on the maritime dispute.
In fact, it was only on Oct. 12, or days after the Palace leaked the trip, that Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang “confirmed” the visit. He said Mr. Duterte would meet Xi and Premier Li Keqiang during his Oct. 18-21 trip, and the two presidents would have a “deep exchange of views” on how to improve ties, cooperation and regional issues.
For another thing, prior to the visit Mr. Duterte and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay issued conflicting statements on the sea dispute.
In Davao City before his departure for Brunei en route to Bejing, Mr. Duterte said that during his talks with Xi he would insist on the Philippines’ territorial claim and would take up the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, “although there will be no hard imposition.”
But the following day in Brunei, Yasay said the President would not raise the maritime issue in his bilateral talks with the Chinese leader. And this was what actually happened, as stated by China’s vice foreign minister.
Then there is the question of why former president Fidel Ramos, the Philippines’ special envoy to Beijing and a good friend of China, was left out of the state visit. Communications Secretary Martin Andanar was quoted as saying that Ramos opted not to join the trip out of respect to Mr. Duterte, because “if two presidents go there it is possible that they will compete for attention.”
What Andanar did not say, and which is apparently common knowledge, is that Ramos is now out of Malacañang’s graces after describing Mr. Duterte’s first 100 days as “a great disappointment” in his newspaper column. Ramos has also publicly criticized Mr. Duterte’s “pivot” to China, which is being made at the expense of the Philippines’ historic ties with the United States.
Alito L. Malinao is a former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. He now teaches journalism part-time at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, and is the author of the book “Journalism for Filipinos.”
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