Friendship bumps
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan (The Philippine Star) - August 19, 2019 - 12:00am

Don’t get him wrong: Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana sees China as a friend.

“Yes, I consider them friends,” Lorenzana told us on “The Chiefs” last Thursday on Cignal TV’s One News. “Maybe there are just some bumps on the road on our way to developing our friendship.”

Unfortunately for bilateral ties, the “bumps” are significant enough for one side to consider that the “friend” has not been acting like one, at least where maritime issues are concerned.

Lorenzana, a former military chief and Army commander, is particularly unhappy that since February this year, the friend’s warships have been entering Philippine territorial waters – not just the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – without notifying Philippine authorities, and with their automatic identification systems (AIS) switched off. 

This is done normally during wartime, to avoid detection by the enemy, Lorenzana observed. Is the Philippines, with its avowed diplomatic policy of being friend to all, enemy to none, an enemy of the Chinese?

If you look at the thousands of Chinese at the offshore gaming or POGO centers, the answer is no, they seem to like it in the Philippines.

But if you look at the warships zigzagging through Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi, you could have second thoughts, like Lorenzana, about that friendship.

*      *      *

China deploys maritime militia ships in the South China Sea, avoiding accusations of militarizing the area. The vessels in Sibutu, however, can be easily identified as military because of their bow numbers, radars and gun turrets, among other features, Lorenzana told us.

At any rate, the militia ships – ostensibly environment or fisheries vessels – are now under the supervision of China’s military.

Lorenzana said he had expressed concern to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua about the warships’ surreptitious passage in Sibutu, which Philippine military officials have described as “trespassing” and “an irritation.”

Zhao reportedly told Lorenzana, “That is wrong! We are friends, they should not be doing that.”

But the incursions continued, with the latest reported in July and this month. I don’t think the word “wrong” can be lost in translation. Lorenzana said Zhao had promised to tell the Chinese navy to inform their embassy in Manila about any such incidents, so that Philippine authorities could be notified.

“But apparently, he may have been unsuccessful in doing that,” Lorenzana told us.

*      *      *

Despite whispers in the diplomatic grapevine that Beijing would be happy to see him replaced, Lorenzana would be joining President Duterte in the upcoming visit to China.

Probably mindful of recent surveys on what Filipinos think of the Chinese and his approach to the maritime dispute, Duterte has announced that the time has come for him to raise with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping the 2016 arbitral court ruling on the Philippines’ maritime entitlements.

The ruling awarded the Philippines sovereign rights over Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank, and declared Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal a common fishing ground over which no country can exercise control.

A multistory Chinese garrison sits on Panganiban, now no longer just a reef but an artificial island off Palawan. More than Panatag, turning over this reef to the Philippines would be a grand gesture of friendship by Beijing.

That, however, would concede the validity of the arbitral ruling, which also nullified China’s nine-dash-line claim over nearly the entire South China Sea.

Responding to the President’s pronouncement about raising the ruling with Xi, Ambassador Zhao engaged in his own megaphone diplomacy, saying Duterte could raise the issue all he likes, but Beijing is not about to budge on its position.

This is not the way to carry on diplomacy, especially between friends. But perhaps Duterte’s message was geared toward the 87 percent of Filipinos who, according to a Social Weather Stations survey last month, wanted him to assert the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration on the country’s entitlements in the West Philippine Sea.

*      *      *

Besides, Duterte is known to heed the sentiments of his soldiers – and they are quite unhappy about what’s happening in Sibutu Strait, Pag-asa Island and elsewhere.

Amid the Sibutu incursions, a security official groused, “Nakakalalaki na.” Surely Duterte understands that sentiment.

He is known to listen to Lorenzana, who is respected by the troops and within the defense establishment.

Lorenzana told us that before opening his mouth about something that contradicts Duterte’s views, he first clears it with the President. So in public, he would in fact be expressing the stand of the commander-in-chief.

“The President as a human being can also change his mind… depending on the information he gets,” Lorenzana told us.

Also, he notes that his counsel is not always heeded. Last year, for example, he recommended the lifting of martial law all over Mindanao except in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

Duterte told him the terrorist threat could spill over into other parts of Mindanao. Heeding the commander-in-chief, Lorenzana then defended the second yearlong extension of martial law all over Mindanao, before Congress and the Supreme Court, both of which upheld the move.

Contrary to public impressions, Lorenzana says Duterte is mindful of criticism.

“He can take criticism very easily,” Lorenzana said, adding that Cabinet members speak their minds during their regular meetings with Duterte. “He takes criticism most of the time.”

On other issues, Lorenzana thinks he has Duterte’s support. These include amending the counterterrorism law or Human Security Act, for example, to broaden the state’s wiretapping powers, delete penalties for law enforcers who make honest mistakes, and allow the detention of suspects without filing charges for up to 72 hours.

People also have the impression that Duterte listens to his defense chief and the troops on security matters concerning China.

The Cabinet cluster on security, which Lorenzana chairs, will be meeting this week on the security implications of POGOs or Philippine offshore gaming operators.

Does Lorenzana trust China? He finds the question “unfair” as he stresses that trust cannot be gauged based mainly on a few incidents such as the Sibutu incursions.

“We are concerned about what they are doing,” he said.

Over the weekend, Lorenzana bristled at Zhao’s comparison of Chinese POGO employees to overseas Filipino workers.

The Chinese are friends, but are they being friendly? Lorenzana simply grinned and told us: “That’s a loaded question.”

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