Duterte’s pro-China bias politically costly

POSTSCRIPT - Federico D. Pascual Jr. - The Philippine Star

The political support of key sectors for President Duterte is being eroded by the pro-China bias tainting the avowed independence of his foreign policy and the effectiveness of his campaign to tame the COVID-19 pandemic.

The rumblings of negative public opinion of his administration have so grown in intensity and frequency that a keen observer like Duterte cannot fail to sense it. Yet he does not seem to hear or heed it.

As the country’s spokesman in foreign relations, the President is expected to speak up in defense of Philippine interests when violated by a bullying neighbor. His failure to do so has forced others to speak up and break the cowardly silence.

This week, we have seen eight potent groups comprising the core of the business community doing what President Duterte has failed to do: calling on China to respect its neighbors and lay off the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

On the labor front, through the Trade Union Congress of the Philippines, organized workers supported the stand taken by the national defense and the foreign affairs departments, saying that Chinese entering the EEZ had encroached on the country’s territorial integrity and disparaged national sovereignty.

Earlier, the Philippines’ defense and diplomatic establishments also called on China to remove its vessels from the Julian Felipe Reef off Palawan and other areas in the EEZ – while Duterte held back his usually tart tongue despite the wanton violation.

Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. summoned the Chinese ambassador in Manila to express the government’s displeasure and demand an end to the swarming by Chinese militia vessels disguised as fishing boats of targeted areas in the country’s EEZ.

While this was going on, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana talked with his US counterpart, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The two reaffirmed their countries’ commitment to act together in repelling foreign aggression against either party under the Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

After their dialog, their militaries held a joint Balikatan exercise to sharpen their cooperative ability. Exercises are held under the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement that Duterte wants to scrap unless the US gives the Philippines certain armaments and COVID-19 vaccines.

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These actions were among the many related developments that took place in the face of the refusal or failure of President Duterte to openly express displeasure over China’s intruding into Philippine areas.

Such failure has not been lost on Filipinos, who denounce not only the failure to protect the national interest in the maritime dispute with China but also the delay in procuring vaccines from the West, in effect giving the Chinese priority in the mass vaccination rollout.

Control by China of choice sections of the Philippine EEZ was dramatized days ago when a TV news team led by Chiara Zambrano of ABS-CBN approaching Ayungin Shoal on a boat was driven away by a Chinese patrol boat armed with missiles.

It was bizarre enough that an alien patrol boat, in fact an intruder, presumed to drive away Filipinos on a legitimate activity in their own EEZ. Duterte’s inaction on Chinese domineering presence appears to have emboldened the trespassers.

At the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal 220 km off Zambales, China coast guard patrols from Hainan 980 km away harass Filipinos in waters that the arbitral court at The Hague ruled in 2016 as shared traditional fishing grounds of Filipinos, Chinese, Vietnamese and neighbors.

No one owns Panatag, but China has appointed itself as its sovereign overlord, with Duterte choosing not to raise the issue with China President Xi Jinping for fear, he said, that doing so would anger Xi and provoke a war.

What arbitral court said of Panatag

The Philippines did not ask the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that the Chinese be banned from the shoal, but only to declare illegal under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea their harassing and barring Filipinos from Panatag.

Also known as Bajo de Masinloc in Spanish times, Huangyan Dao to the Chinese and Scarborough to much of the world, Panatag was open to generations of Filipino fishermen until 2012 when the previous administration left them at the mercy of the Chinese coast guard.

Panatag is well within the country’s 200-nm (370-km) EEZ, but the PCA ruled that China and the Philippines must share its fishery resources between them and with others. That award (ruling) remains a dead letter as China refuses to honor it.

Without the power to resolve sovereignty disputes, the tribunal was silent in its 479-page award on the question of who owns Panatag. Ownership equates to sovereignty, which involves the exercise of the full power and authority of the state.

The tribunal classified Panatag as “high-tide features” (rocks), which generate only a 12-nm (22.22-km) territorial sea. Rocks, which cannot sustain human habitation or economic life of their own, shall have no EEZ or continental shelf.

The UNCLOS said also that a country can only claim sovereignty over its land and up to 12 nautical miles of sea perpendicular to its coastline (base line). Panatag lies beyond the 12-nm limit from the Luzon coast.

On Page 232 of its award, the PCA said “Scarborough shoal includes five to seven rocks that are exposed at high tide and is accordingly a high-tide feature. That those protrusions are composed of coral is immaterial to their classification.”

We are puzzled by this PCA statement since photographs we have seen of Panatag show more than rocks. There is even vegetation.

Everybody should keep watching the area. The South China Morning Post reported in April 2017 that China plans to build an outpost on Panatag and may add an airstrip. Missiles fired from there could hit Manila as well as Clark Field and Subic Bay.

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NB: All Postscripts are also archived at ManilaMail.com. Author is on Twitter as @FDPascual. Email: [email protected]

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