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How the president can protect Panatag and keep the peace

In this March 19, 2017 photo, President Rodrigo Duterte headed to the pre-departure area of Francisco Bangoy International Airport in Davao to deliver a speech before heading to Myanmar for an official visit. PCOO/Released

MANILA, Philippines — Philippine foreign policy toward China under President Rodrigo Duterte has been marked by seeming lack of coordination between the president and his senior government officials.

The country’s diplomatic approach to the Chinese has come under intense again following reports that several Chinese vessels went to Benham Rise and stayed in the area for weeks.

Duterte said he had received advance notice from China that the ships would enter the area. China has thanked President Duterte for how he handled the presence of its ships, which, it said, only passed through.

In recent days, it has also been reported that China is planning to install a radar station in Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), a traditional fishing ground within the country’s economic zone that China has had de facto control over since a tense standoff in 2012. Duterte has said that there is nothing that can be done to stop China from "doing its thing" short of war.

Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has suggested five ways the president can defend Panatag Shoal, which is part of the country’s territory under Philippine law.

Carpio said that as the commander in chief of the armed forces, Duterte was expressly tasked by the Constitution to defend national territory.

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He said the president can defend Panatag without resorting to a military confrontation by doing any or all of the following:

  1. File a strong formal protest against the Chinese building activity. This is the least that the president should do. This is what the Vietnamese did recently when China sent cruise tours to the disputed Paracels.

  2. Send the Philippine Navy to patrol Scarborough Shoal. If the Chinese attack Philippine Navy vessels, then the president can invoke the Phillippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty which covers any armed attack on Philippine Navy vessels operating in the South China Sea.

  3. Ask the US to declare that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory for purposes of the Mutual Defense Treaty since the shoal has been part of the Philippine territory even during the American colonial period. The US has declared the Senkakus as part of Japanese territory for purposes of the US-Japan mutual defense treaty.

  4. Accept the standing US offer to hold joint naval patrols in the South China Sea, which includes Scarborough Shoal. This will demonstrate joint Philippine and US determination to prevent China from building on Scarborough Shoal.

  5. Avoind any act, statement or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. This will preserve for future generations of Filipinos their national patrimony in the West Philippine Sea.

For Richard Heydarian, a foreign affairs analyst from De La Salle University, there are “blatant” gaps in the country’s approach toward China. He labeled the government’s policy as largely inconsistent.

“Especially between Duterte's highly cordial if not sentimental statements towards China and its supposed generosity and love for the Philippines, on one hand, and more nuanced and realistic concerns raised by his defense and foreign ministry officials, who are clearly troubled by China's maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea and Benham Rise, on the other,” he said.

Heydarian suggested two things that the Philippines could do with regard to planned Chinese structures in Panatag and its overall approach to the issue on South China Sea. These are:

  1. Duterte [should] draw the line when necessary and ensure the economic benefits with China would not soften the Philippine resolve in its territory.

  2. With regard to the issue of South China Sea, since China was dragging its foot on the issue of a binding code of conduct in the South China Sea, the Philippines should push for “minilateralism.”

Heydarian said that in this approach, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei should negotiate the code of conduct among themselves first which can be done more quickly. After this, these nations could then invite or name and shame China into signing the document.

He also suggested that the Philippines use its chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to include the code and a clear timetable for the negotiation of its framework and guidelines in its agenda this year.

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