Duterte’s visit to China: Panelo version
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - September 6, 2019 - 12:00am

Salvador Panelo – officially the Palace spokesperson,  although others accuse him of not being exclusively so – has described the President’s visit to China as “successful and highly productive”. Panelo, of course, has been known to employ hyperbole for his unique interpretation of events.  Success being relative, so should we cut him some slack? 

Let’s start with matters which have a bigger following in the country than territorial disputes. Panelo previously said the President’s presence in China during the FIBA World Cup should “inspire” and “challenge” Gilas Pilipinas. Well, they got clobbered by 46 points in that game by the taller, more skillful Italians, with the President sitting in the stands.

Undeterred, Panelo said, “Verily, its not always winning that counts; it is how the game is played. Our Filipino players honorably competed with grit and passion today, and for that they deserve our admiration. While we may have a suffered a defeat at this early stage of the competition, we must always remember that the true hallmarks of Filipino pride are resiliency in the face of adversity, perseverance in times of crisis, and triumph despite insurmountable odds.” He continued, “Thus, we have no doubt that our nation’s team will bounce back with renewed heart in its next game.” The next night, Team Gilas were walloped by Serbia by a whooping 59 points. I’m sure even the ebullient Panelo would be hard pressed to spin that into something positive.

On to the less glamorous business of territorial disputes, but from a basketball perspective. Did the honorable spokesperson fare better in describing what the President had accomplished? The President left Manila with the promise that he would raise with President Xi the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which found no legal basis for China’s claim of historic rights to a so-called nine-dash line which covers practically the entire South China Sea, including those under our EEZ. Well, the President did raise the issue. In basketball analogy, I would count that as a lay-up. But President Xi blocked the attempt when he responded that China does not recognize the ruling. Not content, Xi advised Duterte not to listen to “external forces”, e.g. America. He then suggested that they set these differences aside and move on to other aspects of the bilateral relations which are more important. The ball goes the other way for a fast break! Worse, Panelo said the President raised the issue “apologetically” which raised hackles at home. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin was quick to contradict Panelo’s characterization of what transpired. He said far from apologizing, the President told his counterpart in no uncertain terms. Too late – basket good, foul and one.

Recall that when the Aquino administration filed the case at the PCA, it said it continues to value our historic ties and that our maritime dispute was not the sum-total of our bilateral relations. So set these differences aside and move on. But China immediately responded by blocking the shipment of bananas and turning off the flow of tourist traffic from China. Then, they suspended practically all bilateral ties, including the annual meetings for setting trade and investments targets. And now they tell us let’s move on because maritime disputes are not the sum-total of our relationship. Selective amnesia?

It would be naïve to expect the President to pivot from his stance over the territorial dispute with China. But he had to do something to appease the public and especially the defense establishment angered by China’s aggressive actions – harassing our fishermen and having its warships pass through Philippine territory without advice as international law requires. Panelo called the situation a “stalemate”.

Surely, we cannot call agreeing to disagree a success, particularly when the UN and the international opinion is on our side. Panelo did offer that Duterte and Xi agreed that “both countries should exercise self-restraint and to refrain from performing aggressive or provocative acts that may impair ties.” Great, but really, both countries? As far as I know, we have not been harassing Chinese fishermen. The President has welcomed them instead, according to reports. Nor do I recall any instances of our beleaguered navy sailing anywhere within internationally recognized Chinese territory. But ok I’ll count this as two-points for the Philippines pending review of the play. Meaning, who says what constitutes provocative and aggressive and will China live up to it? Their track record so far leaves room for doubt.

As for the fishing boat incident itself, Panelo said we have accepted the apology. That’s not enough. There should be compensation and the Chinese government should sanction the guilty party for violating international convention on abandonment at sea of seamen in peril. Locsin tweeted, “Hey morons, I did not accept the apology. I merely noted it.” To be fair, I don’t think he was addressing the spokesperson - he used the plural form.

There was also the small matter of joint exploration of carbon resources which took another step forward with the creation of a steering committee. This could turn out to be positive, if the terms of the eventual arrangement for the extraction conform to Philippine laws or at least to equitable commercial arrangements.

So we are at half time. The second half promises to be far more fulfilling in terms of practical outcomes. If progress on these two issues – compensation to the fishermen and oil exploration – then we can call it a success. And if it happens that the Code of Conduct shows concrete progress, we might see a slam dunk by the undersized Filipinos.

My point in this peroration? If the job calls for him to defend the Palace at all cost and mercilessly attacked its critics, then I think Panelo maybe serving his bosses well in the short term, but harming public perception in the long term. In matters of foreign affairs specially, it calls for expertise and trustworthiness to be credible. As the Duterte visit has shown, the wrong choice of words can sow confusion and controversy. It should be left to people who understand the language of diplomacy where every word has a nuance best appreciated after years of exposure. Our foreign secretary served as our envoy to the United Nations, which is ground zero for decorum. His twitter language notwithstanding, I submit that he and his staff at the Department of Foreign Affairs are more credible to speak about foreign relations. We need a Stephen Curry and not a Dennis Rodman. Besides, Secretary Panelo has other things preoccupying him. 

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