COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - May 1, 2019 - 12:00am

A few days before we join today the international community in the observance of Labor Day, it would have been a very welcome message – even good news, in fact – about some 21,000 prospective new jobs to be created once the 19 investment projects and trade deals between Chinese and Filipino business conglomerates come on stream starting this year.

President Duterte witnessed the signing of 19 business agreements in energy, infrastructure including tourism-related facilities, industrial parks, communications and internet connectivity, agriculture, and skills training for Filipino workers.

As Malacanang drumbeaters announced, these investment projects and trade deals reaped from President Duterte’s latest trip to China are worth $12.165 billion (or roughly P634 trillion). From estimates provided by Malacañang, these 21,000 new jobs that were inked by private sector businessmen delegation with their Chinese counterparts during the presidential trip last week in China could gainfully employ Filipinos.

President Duterte returned last Saturday night after attending the second Belt and Road Forum held in Beijing. It was his fourth trip to China since assuming office at Malacañang in June 2016. The 74-year-old Chief Executive did away with his traditional arrival speech when he flew back in a private jet to Davao City, along with his partner Honeylet Avanceña and their daughter Kitty.

An official Palace statement, however, was released and described the trip as “productive and fruitful” after President Duterte participated with 35 other heads of state who joined the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing from April 26 to 27.

But more than the dollars and pesos of that China trip, what the Palace drumbeaters failed to highlight was President Duterte’s first-ever strongest statement so far on our country’s indisputable claims over the Kalayaan Island Group that included Pag-asa in the West Philippine Sea. As far as his past three previous trips in China, it was during this visit to Beijing that President Duterte officially laid on the table the favorable ruling to the Philippines by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague.

Handed down in 2016 a few months before he assumed office at Malacañang, President Duterte deemed it wise not to press Beijing to acknowledge The Hague ruling. It also declared that parts of the sea fall within areas where only the Philippines possesses possible entitlements to maritime zones.

At the outset, China already declared it is not bound by any PCA jurisdiction and insisted on their claim on all the islands, islets, atolls, reefs, shoals, and rocks covered within their nine-dash line claim over South China Sea. Aside from Philippines, other claimant countries – Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Thailand – are also embroiled in this longstanding dispute over some areas in the South China Sea. An estimated $5 trillion worth of shipment passes through every year in the busy lanes of the South China Sea where countries like the United States invoke the freedom of navigation.

The former Davao City Mayor suffered in silence to the ensuing bitter attacks against his administration for taking such diplomatic tact on the Philippine victory in the overlapping maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Even accused of treason for being too soft on Beijing over the sea row, all policies and actions taken by President Duterte were thus portrayed as pro-China.

By not adding salt to injury, so to speak, President Duterte invoked his personal belief on “Ecclesiastes 3:1-8.”

His favorite lines that there is a time for everything, it has earned apparently Beijing’s trust and respect that this is the time for them to finally listen to the Philippine leader’s pleas.

President Duterte took these matters during his bilateral talks with Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, in a closed-door meeting along with their respective Cabinet officials. Xi reportedly told Duterte during the bilateral meeting that China still does not recognize the arbitral ruling that invalidated their claims in the South China Sea.

Unperturbed, President Duterte elevated the matter in his speech in the presence of President Xi and their fellow heads of state attending the Leaders Roundtable Session of the Second Belt and Road Forum at the Yanqi Lake International Convention Center. The Philippine leader reiterated his government’s resolve to work toward making the South China Sea a “sea of peace, stability and prosperity” amid the open defiance of Beijing of this Hague ruling.

“As channels of transportation and communication and a vital source of sustenance and livelihood, our oceans and seas connect and sustain us,” the President pointed out. Without mentioning the disputed West Philippine Sea, President Duterte stressed the importance of the effort to protect the world’s oceans and seas. “As an archipelagic state, the Philippines seeks to improve our collective capacity to manage and protect marine resources,” he said.

This brings to mind the latest brouhaha over the reckless harvest and hauling by Chinese divers of clams from Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in Zambales.

The clam hauling was the latest note verbale sent to Beijing by Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. who is currently getting flaks in his past Tweeter posts that he would not want to be remembered as having ignited a “clam” war between the Philippines and China.  

To his credit though, I would like to believe it was the Locsin touch on this speech of President Duterte that has been able to send this strong message to Beijing that it is now time to bring the sea dispute to a bilateral basis while at the same time bringing in other claimant countries and the rest of the international community to resolve it on the table.

To this end, President Duterte hailed the Belt and Road Forum, which President Xi initiated in 2013 as a major foreign policy of China, as an opportunity for countries to explore avenues of mutual benefit for all instead of an unproductive fear-mongering.

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