Bombshell
FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno (The Philippine Star) - September 24, 2020 - 12:00am

President Duterte delivered a well-crafted speech, pre-recorded for the 75th session of the UN General Assembly. It was a short speech that covered all the basic policy positions the country stands by: climate change, nuclear disarmament, gender equality, human rights, the description of the COVID-19 vaccine as a global public good and the overlapping territorial claims over features at the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

All the policy positions reiterated by the President were expected, including his complaint about the “weaponization” of human rights issues. The only unexpected element of that speech was the strong position he took on the WPS issues. One normally critical news site described his statements on this matter a “bombshell.”

This was the first time in his four-year old presidency that Duterte took a strong position upholding the country’s exclusive economic zone claims over parts of the WPS. “The Award,” the President declared, “is now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.”

Duterte’s strong reiteration of the Philippine position on the WPS issues dovetails similarly strong positions taken by major powers only days before. Germany, the UK and France issued a joint declaration invalidating China’s claims to maritime features built up into islands hosting military facilities.

For years, Duterte has been criticized for taking a soft position towards Beijing on the contending territorial claims. His most virulent critics tried to picture him as China’s “puppet.” Others thought that our sovereign claims were being sacrificed on the altar of short-term economic gains.

The President’s articulated position before the UN General Assembly should silence those critics. The Philippine position rejecting China’s “nine-dash line” claims could not have been repudiated more staunchly. The arbitral award could not have been affirmed more clearly. Both former associate justice Antonio Carpio and former ambassador Albert del Rosario praised Duterte’s affirmation of the arbitral award.

For years, Duterte has been promising to take a clearer position regarding the arbitral award at the appropriate time. That time is now. A broad international consensus has formed rejecting Beijing’s ambitious claims. The President’s affirmation of the arbitral award will not sound hollow.

The past few weeks have not been happy for Beijing’s diplomatic apparatchiks. The pandemic originating from the Chinese city of Wuhan has been a public relations fiasco for the Asian superpower. The vociferous American president urged in the same forum that China be held accountable for the pandemic and its mounting economic costs. The US escalated pressure on China by sending two very senior diplomatic missions to Taipei. Britain and France have sent warships to the South China Sea to blunt China’s power projections.

Duterte’s words before the General Assembly will not suffice, of course. Having affirmed the arbitral award, Manila must follow through with a more active assertion of our exclusive economic zone, including our rights to natural resources that the area might yield for our people’s benefit.

Extradition

When we shifted to a One-China policy over four decades ago, we had to extinguish formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan. Beijing insists all other nations respect its view that Taiwan is a renegade province of China.

Over the past weeks, tensions have risen between China and Taiwan. Chinese warplanes flew close to the island’s frontiers, prompting Taiwanese jets to scramble.

Our downgraded relations with Taiwan create many problems for us. More than hampering trade and investment flows between our country and the prosperous island, Taiwan has become a sanctuary for fugitives who think the absence of formal diplomatic ties insures them against extradition.

The latest case involves a certain David Wong (Wong Ching Yin).

Wong is accused of defrauding a member of the prominent Gaisano clan in Cebu to the tune of P3.2 billion. The investment scam, conducted through Wong’s DW Capital Inc., is the talk of the southern city.

Erstwhile investment partner Valerie Gaisano-Sebastian filed a multiple estafa case against Wong. After some delay due to high-powered legal maneuvers, the accused simply disappeared.

Gaisano-Sebastian asked the NBI for assistance. Wong has been included in the Interpol’s Red Notice since October 2019. The plaintiff received information the accused is hiding out in Taiwan.

This is where the complications set in.

Instead of full-fledged embassies, the two countries maintain commercial and cultural offices in each other’s capital. The Manila Economic and Cultural Office (MECO) in Taipei and the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office (TECO) in Manila have limited responsibilities. They are, technically, not official delegations.

The limited relations we have with Taiwan get in the way of chasing fugitives who manage to cross borders. Even the Interpol will have difficulties enforcing its Red Notice on David Wong.

The plaintiff has offered a reward of P2 million for information leading to the arrest of the fugitive David Wong. She has asked the NBI to coordinate with Interpol to track down and arrest the defendant. There has been little progress in this effort.

The magnitude of the financial fraud that is alleged in this case is sensational, to say the least. It should be a national concern.

This case should provide enough impetus for the Philippines and Taiwan to review protocols for the extradition of fugitives. Neither should become sanctuaries for fugitives who manage to cross borders to escape law enforcement.

In the same way that this was an opportune time to stand up to Beijing on the WPS issues, it should be a good time to develop more meaningful cooperation with Taiwan without infringing on our One-China policy.

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