President at UNGA: New mindset
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - September 23, 2020 - 12:00am

President Duterte’s first appearance at the UN General Assembly scheduled early this morning (Wednesday Philippine time) comes following a serendipitous congruence of events. All Philippine presidents have spoken at the annual UNGA meeting at one time or another during their time in office, so it would have set a new precedent had Duterte not appeared at least once during his term. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the UN to conduct this year’s meeting virtually, which means the President will not have to travel to the United States in order to participate. Apart from sparing the President from the rigors of long-distance travel, it also takes out of the equation the risk of an uncertain reception from officials and the US public.

The text of the President’s statement has not been made public, although media reports of official sources said that his remarks would cover the country’s response to COVID-19, human rights and rule of law, particularly as it relates to the anti-drug war, and peace and security in East Asia, including the South China Sea.

If indeed he raises the issue of compliance with the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration that invalidated China’s sweeping claim to the whole of the South China Sea, that would be a major shift in the position that the Duterte administration has taken since his inauguration. In previous statements at the UNGA, the Philippines has carefully skirted the issue, referring to the situation in the South China Sea as being under control by all the parties involved directly and avoiding mentioning the PCA ruling.

In my column of July 17, I referred to this as “unsheathing the sword” by the President, which would signal a more pro-active response by the government in calling China to task for its willful disregard of the PCA ruling. Sovereignty issues aside, this has led to the loss of livelihood of our fishermen who have been denied access to their traditional fishing ground, the destruction of the maritime environment through destructive fishing and island building, and the encroachment of China’s naval vessels on Philippine territory.

My call was prompted by the strong statements from the United States and Australia that they did not recognize China’s claim. This has been further boosted by the note verbale filed recently with the UN from Germany, France and the United Kingdom that states that China’s sweeping historic claim of the South China Sea was contrary to international law and the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). It would be ridiculous – even shameful – for the Philippines to disregard this strong show of support. It would be specially galling for Filipinos since Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia – who have stronger economic ties with China than us – have been more assertive in pursuing their grievances against China.

The President’s UNGA address should also put to rest those who have been promoting the notion that there has been a fundamental disagreement between former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and current Foreign Secretary Ted Locsin.

Locsin disregarded his predecessor’s almost treasonous statement that a joint ASEAN statement should exclude China’s militarization and reclamation activities because it is not reflective of the present statement. Locsin was unequivocal in his position regarding the PCA ruling reiterating the country’s adherence to the award and enforcement without any possibility of compromise or change. Former Secretary ADR agrees with Locsin’s position but has called for the issue to be brought to the UN and other international fora. Secretary Locsin who is capable of mixing it with the best when it comes to taking the gloves off, is understandably waiting for a cue from his boss and thus has demurred so far.

What happens next will depend on what the President will actually say and how much support he gets from those who share the same view as the United States, Australia, France, Germany and the U.K. on China’s actuations. Will ASEAN stand up to be counted? If there is a considerable groundswell of support, then a resolution calling on China to respect the UN ruling, might follow. Under the circumstances, the virtual nature of the meeting and the absence of “corridor diplomacy” might make the task of getting a resolution successfully passed, to be complicated and difficult. Nevertheless, whether it happens at this meeting or the next, now that the President has “unsheathed the sword”, I would submit that we should continue to do so. The point is not whether we get enough votes or not but that we have a pressure point – even if it is in the nature of “name and shame” - where we previously had none. Who knows, we, Filipinos may be able to get something – even respect – than being Mr. Nice which has not yielded the results we were told we would get.

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