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China’s ‘cloud diplomacy’

COMMONSENSE - Marichu Villanueva (The Philippine Star) - February 8, 2021 - 12:00am

Late last month, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and newly installed President of the United States (US) Joe Biden confirmed that Article 5 of the US-Japan bilateral security treaty covers the Senkakus. As defined by this treaty, the US military forces would defend Japan in case conflict arises in the island being disputed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

In our country’s case, the Biden administration reaffirmed the same US commitment in case of foreign aggression at any of our territories under the existing US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). This was relayed to the Philippine government by US State Department Secretary Antony J. Blinken during his telephone conversations with Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. “Secretary Blinken pledged to stand with Southeast Asian claimants in the face of PRC pressure,” the State Department subsequently announced.

This was after China passed last month a new Coast Guard Law that empowers it to “take all necessary measures, including the use of weapons, when national sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction are being illegally infringed upon by foreign organizations or individuals at sea.” And the same law allows Chinese coast guard to demolish other countries’ structures built on reefs and islands claimed by China and to seize or order foreign vessels illegally entering China’s territorial waters to leave.

As far as our country is concerned, our territories include the islands, islets, atolls, shoals, reefs and rocks within the 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EZZ) encompassing the West Philippine Sea under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This was affirmed by the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and junked Beijing’s nine-dash-line claims in South China Sea.

In his Twitter account @teddyboylocsin, the DFA chief asserted: “While enacting law is a sovereign prerogative, this one – given the area involved, or for that matter the open South China Sea – is a verbal threat of war to any country that defies the law.” Citing failure to challenge the law “is submission to it,” Locsin immediately fired off a diplomatic protest coursed through the Chinese Embassy in Manila.

Reacting to Locsin’s tweet when asked about this during an exclusive of the CNN-Philippines last Friday, China’s ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian diplomatically dismissed Locsin’s latest rant on Twitter post. Obviously referring to Republic Act 9993, or the Philippine Coast Guard Law of 2009, Huang noted this local law empowered our own Coast Guard to enforce regulations in accordance with existing maritime laws and treaties.

“There’s no change in terms of China’s foreign policy, and no change in the action of China Coast Guard before or after the formulation of the law,” Huang pointed out. Further, Huang assuaged the Filipino people: “The China Coast Guard will not take any strong measure against any fishermen – before or after the formulation of this law. Sometimes, interpretation and reading of such domestic activities of China is not necessary.”

Hosting a virtual celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year Saturday night, Amb. Huang reiterated the “cloud diplomacy” that Chinese President Xi has adopted following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. In his remarks in Chinese (translated in subtitles), Huang quoted State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in describing how President Xi has demonstrated China’s sense of responsibility, contributing its wisdom and expanding the ways it conducts foreign relations through “cloud diplomacy” to spread peace and harmony.

According to the Chinese Foreign Minister, President Xi personally planned, oversaw and engaged in “cloud diplomacy” in 87 meetings and phone calls with foreign leaders and heads of international organizations and attending 22 important bilateral or multilateral events through this virtual platform in 2020 to cope with challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. Wang cited President Xi has “championed solidarity in the world’s fight against COVID-19, offered a series of proposals in light of China’s experience in coordinating pandemic responses and economic and social development, and pointed the way forward for reforming the global governance system through cloud diplomacy.”

Locsin did not show up at the virtual reception of the Chinese Lunar New Year but sent instead DFA Undersecretary Brigido Dulay to represent him. Dulay gave a brief pre-taped video message in behalf of the Philippine government. But other Duterte Cabinet members and Philippine government officials were recognized as present during the Zoom Webinar of the Chinese New Lunar Year virtual reception. They included, namely, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez and newly installed Armed Forces chief of staff Gen. Cirilito Sobejana.

Locsin, however, had previously met face to face with Chinese counterpart Foreign Minister Wang who visited Manila last Jan. 15 to 16. This was reciprocal to Locsin’s official visit to Beijing in October last year. The Chinese Foreign Minister also paid his courtesy call to President Rodrigo Duterte at Malacañang. Then, on Jan. 22, the Chinese coast guard law was passed.

Nobody wants war. Not even the US – as a world military power – wishes to start one.

Not even while then US President Donald Trump was dissing China. Undoing the costly foreign policy mistakes of his immediate predecessor at the White House, President Biden, in fact, has declared his every intention to engage anew with China through “diplomacy” under his administration’s foreign policy agenda.

The Philippines too, could not afford to go against China in terms of challenging its military might. No less than President Duterte pragmatically acknowledged this amid public pressure to assert The Hague ruling in favor of us.

President Duterte could perhaps engage with his bosom buddy in Beijing via the latter’s “cloud diplomacy” just to clear the air.

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