DEFENSE Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s visit to Pagasa Island in the municipality of Kalayaan in the Spratlys last week posed no threat to China of any kind. No troops were landed, neither was any offensive military structure introduced into the island, which lies 450 nautical miles from Manila and 235 miles from Palawan. Nor did the visit modify President Rodrigo Duterte’s declared policy not to assert his government’s rights vis-a-vis China on the disputed maritime areas which, according to the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling at The Hague last July, rightfully belong to the Philippines.
In 1975, the Marcos government built an 1,800-meter runway on Pagasa. In 1978, Marcos constituted the Kalayaan Island Group as a separate and distinct municipality of Kalayaan, to be administered directly by the Secretary of National Defense. In May 1988, 147 Filipino voters on Pagasa, having constituted themselves into a barangay, elected Alawin, a Muslim Filpino, as their first barangay captain. This act completed Kalayaan’s political integration into the Philippine archipelagic state.
Over the years, Kalayaan has been visited by Philippine government officials. During Lorenzana’s visit, Chinese authorities challenged his Philippine Air Force plane while flying over the Spratlys. The captain replied that they were travelling within Philippine air space. There was no untoward incident. Any attempt to bring down the plane by mistake could have drawn the United States into the fray, because of its mutual defense treaty obligations to the Philippines. But the Chinese did not attempt to do this. Instead, the Foreign Ministry spokesman expressed grave dissatisfaction afterward, saying the visit went against the “consensus” between the two countries on how to deal with their maritime dispute.
Some observers tend to regard the Chinese statement as an “over-reaction.” In their view, no “consensus” was breached by the visit. DU30’s decision not to invoke the arbitral court’s ruling on China was a unilateral benevolent move meant to allow the two countries to temporarily set aside any discussion of their dispute while trying to improve cooperation through bilateral means. This decision has remained in good standing, but there was no commitment on the part of the DU30 government to freeze all its activities in the Spratlys, especially in areas where it has long established its official presence like Pagasa.
Why then this loud complaint of the Chinese? Some observers believe China is fully aware its interests have not been threatened, but it would like to ascertain whether DU30’s unilateral announcement, made during his state visit to China last October, that he had decided to “separate” economically and militarily from the US and join China and Russia “against the world,” still held. There has been no tangible attempt to implement this policy statement. The two countries remain strong economic and trading partners, without any conflict with the enhanced economic cooperation between China and the Philippines.
At the same time, the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty remains undisturbed, together with the Visiting Forces Agreement and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The MDT provides that an attack on the armed forces, military vessels or aircraft of either party within its metropolitan territory in the Pacific shall be considered a grave danger to the security of the other, which shall act to meet the danger according to its constitutional processes. The VFA and the EDCA are the MDT’s implementing agreements; EDCA in particular allows US troops, arms and facilities to be stationed within Philippine military bases.
The MDT and EDCA may be terminated by either party after one year’s notice, the VFA after six months. No such notice has been served on any of the agreements. The only announced change involves the scope and venue of the regular Balikatan joint military exercises. So, the “separation” appears to have been suspended. No wonder, one senior Chinese diplomat not too long ago asked me, Is there no chance DU30 is using China just to improve his bargaining power with the US?
What could add to this curiosity is DU30’s gratuitous and constitutionally questionable offer to send troops to Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain during his Holy Week state visit to the three Arab states. None of the three Islamic monarchies had asked for Filipino troops. But all three are known to be close allies of the United States: Saudi Arabia and Qatar are known to support the US effort to get rid of the Bashar al-Assad regime in civil war-stricken Syria, the most dangerous place in the world.
This is anathema to China and Russia, which DU30 will visit (for the first time in the case of Russia, and again in the case of China) in May. Although DU30 has not said anything about the April 6 US missile strike against Syria, which is said to have destroyed 20 percent of the latter’s Air Force, his gratuitous offer of sending troops to the US allies could be interpreted to mean tacit support for the controversial strike. It is, therefore, not far-fetched to suspect that China might be wondering now whether DU30 has actually taken a U-turn on his dramatic bid to “separate” from the US.
DU30’s view of foreign relations is basically personal rather than institutional; his personal dislike of Barack Obama, for wanting to look into his war on drugs, had led him to curse America’s first black President and announce his military and economic “separation” from the US. On the other hand, his professed admiration for Trump, whom he regards as a kindred soul, has since softened his anti-American rhetoric. DU30 might want to move closer to Washington now, following Trump’s missile strike on Syria, and a Filipino lawyer’s filing of a “communication” against him before the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague for his alleged role in the murder of 9,400 victims from the time he was mayor of Davao until his current brutal war on drugs.
Why is this? Because, as some observers put it, if Trump were presented with sufficient evidence of summary killings in DU30’s drug war, like the videos and photos of the victims of chemical poisoning in the Syrian village of Kan Sheikhoun in Idlib province, he could unleash a similar punitive action without any warning. In Syria, all Trump had was photos and visuals showing that civilians had been killed from gas poisoning, but no evidence that the chemical attack had been staged by the Syrian forces, as alleged by the rebels and their supporters, or had been the result of a rebel-held storage plant exploding during the fighting, as Syria and Russia insisted.
With respect to the “communication” entitled, “The situation of mass murder in the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, the mass murder,” which Cagayan de Oro lawyer Jude Josue Sabio filed before ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on behalf of the self-confessed hitman Edgar Matobato, on Monday, DU30 will need all the help he can get from the US, whether or not the complaint goes to the trial chamber and he is formally indicted. The US, like China, is not a state party to the ICC, which was created by the Rome Statute in 1998 and went into force in 2002. But it is presumed to wield enough influence among the 124 state parties, which include the Philippines.
Even if the “communication” does not mature into a case, DU30’s enemies could exploit it to the hilt for propaganda purposes. In which case, he would still need the help of favorable international public opinion, as mediated by the social media and the world press. DU30 may perhaps console himself with the fact that the process is not rigged against him. According to Wikipedia, out of 8,874 “communications” (like Sabio’s) received by the Office of Prosecutor as of September 2010, 4,002 were thrown out for being “manifestly outside the jurisdiction of the Court.” The prosecutor’s office is now conducting preliminary investigations in 10 situations in Afghanistan, Burundi, Colombia, Gabon, Guinea, Iraq/UK, Nigeria, Palestine, registered vessels of Comoros, Greece. and Cambodia, and Ukraine.
The pre-trial chamber has indicted 39 individuals; the Court has issued 31 warrants and eight summonses.
Proceedings against 22 are ongoing; nine are at large as fugitives; four are under arrest but not in the Court’s custody; eight are on trial; and one appealing his conviction. Proceedings against 17 have been completed—-three convicted and one acquitted, charges against six dismissed, charges against two withdrawn, the case against one declared inadmissible, and four have died before they could be tried.
One great ray of hope, for any potential indictee, is that all 18 ICC judges are said to be totally independent.