Is a firmer gov’t stance forming vis-à-vis China?
AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo (The Philippine Star) - September 28, 2019 - 12:00am

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin Jr., in New York this week to address the United Nations General Assembly in behalf of the Duterte government, made two significant remarks about China.

On a Code of Conduct (CoC) to cover disputed waters of the South China Sea, targeted for signing in 2022 by Asean member states and China, Locsin was quoted as saying:

“It is implicit recognition of China’s hegemony [over the SCS]. In short, a manual for living with a hegemon, or the care and feeding of a dragon in your living room.” One of his counterparts, he added, had told him “even a good [CoC] is still a Chinese code of conduct.”

In a further potshot, Locsin tried to downplay the artificial islands built and militarized by China over disputed reefs in the Spratlys. He said:

“The taking and reclamation of these reefs was the most useless thing China ever did, rousing the hostility of its neighbors without getting, gaining the smallest tactical advantage against its primary adversary [referring to the United States].”

He contrasted that with what he boasted as the “rock-solid relationship” between the US and the Philippines.

Later at the UN headquarters, Locsin had a sideline discussion with US State Department assistant secretary David Stillwell. The result? Our chief diplomatic representative gushed: “Half a billion dollars of military assistance. That’s a good corrective to the widespread and deliberately ignorant view that America is not carrying out its share of the burden of Philippine national defense.”

But then Locsin turned around, in a remark quoted by PhilStar.com, and pooh-poohed the much-vaunted loans and investments that China has pledged to the Philippines for economic and infrastructure development.

 “We signed up this and that agreement, but they hardly materialized,” he said. “And if you were to compare it with Japanese investments and official assistance, nothing. It seems as if Japan, if there is a thing as a rising China, apparently there’s a phenomenon – there’s a book on it – on a rising Japan. And we’re feeling that.”

These comments were reportedly made by Locsin during a conversation with former Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rood at the Asia Society Policy Institute in New York.  

Asked to react during his press briefing at Malacañang this week, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo recalled his talk with China’s ambassador, Zhao Jianhua, wherein he said the latter blamed Philippine government red tape for slowing down delivery of his government’s commitments. Zhao, he said, assured there was no problem on the Chinese side. He didn’t dispute the ambassador’s claim.

As regards the CoC issue, Panelo dismissed as “speculation” Senior Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio’s warning that, before the end of Duterte’s term in 2022, China might attempt to reclaim Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and build islands on it, then agree to sign a CoC to legitimize its claim over the entire South China Sea and the artificial islands it has built.

While saying nobody can “read the mind of the Chinese government,” the spokesperson assured the Duterte government would “definitely” oppose any intrusion into the country’s sovereign affairs. He quoted Duterte as having vowed: “I will not allow during my incumbency any assault on our sovereignty. That arbitral ruling [referring to the Hague court decision in 2016 favoring the Philippines claim and rejecting China’s assertion of ownership of the entire South China Sea] is final, binding and not subject to appeal.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana backed up Panelo’s stance. Recalling the incidents at Panatag Shoal in 2012 (which spurred the filing of the arbitral case by the Philippines) he conceded that China might attempt what Carpio has been warning against. “They attempted to really build, but they were stopped by the US,” he said, adding, “President Obama himself said ‘that’s a red line, don’t build.’”

Obama and China’s President Xi Jinping had talked about this issue during the latter’s visit to the US, Lorenzana pointed out, and that Duterte had picked up Obama’s line. “The President said that’s a red line. ‘We’re not allowing them [the Chinese]. If they build there, that’s a red line,’” he quoted Duterte.

 Recall that Lorenzana was the first Cabinet member to accuse a Chinese trawler’s captain and crew of bumping and destroying a Filipinos fishing boat near Recto Reef last year, abandoning the latter’s crew to the sea. (Duterte regarded it as a “minor maritime incident.”) Recall too that Locsin decided to “fire off” a diplomatic protest to China after Lorenzana’s outburst and the military backed up his accusation. “I take the cue from the military,” Locsin declared at the time.

Duterte has on occasions teasingly called Lorenzana an “Amboy” for having stayed in Washington DC as the Philippine embassy’s military attache for more than a dozen years. And Lorenzana’s actions as defense secretary have indeed affirmed his pro-US proclivity, such as calling on the US for aerial surveillance and bombing support to quell the “Marawi siege” in March 2017; he has also pressed for the continuance and expansion of US-Phl joint military exercises (which Duterte had previously suspended or reduced) as well as increasing US military assistance.

It’s now Locsin’s turn to make verbal swipes against China, and to foster stronger ties with the US, hailing it as “the eternal engine of endeavor and invention.” He cited the results of the Social Weather Station July survey showing 92% of those surveyed saying they have trust in America. “It’s very clear that the [Filipino] people are pro-American and so is the army,” he said.

While sizing up the US-Phl alliance as “rock solid,” Locsin expressed hope that it would be manifested “not just in words but in material commitments and American presence.” “We cannot see any way forward, and an Asia with any promise of freedom, without American military presence,” he concluded.

 Will Locsin’s critical view on China’s behavior as “hegemon” in the South China Sea vis-à-vis his push for stronger ties with the US, along with Lorenzana’s own quiet moves in the same direction, sway Duterte to review his “independent” foreign policy that is actually obeisant to Xi Jinping?

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

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