PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte virtually aborted the implementation of diplomatic mechanisms between the Philippines and China as well as with members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) when he ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy all islands and reefs at the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) controlled by the country, a political analyst said on Tuesday.
Professor Bobby Tuazon, director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPEG), said there was no need for the President to issue such an order since any action that the government wants to undertake in Philippine-controlled areas could have been done quietly so as not to set off a diplomatic “bedlam.”
According to Tuazon, Duterte’s order caused concern in China because both governments had agreed to use bilateral mechanisms to discuss and resolve maritime issues.
These bilateral mechanisms were to be discussed in May on the sidelines of the Belt and Road international conference in Beijing.
“Mr. Duterte preempted these bilateral discussions with his announcement to “occupy” the Philippine-claimed territories in the Spratlys,” Tuazon said.
The President’s order also sends mixed signals to Asean members at a time when the Philippines is to host a summit coinciding with the regional association’s 50th founding anniversary, he added.
“It was President Duterte’s diplomatic faux pas. President Duterte was clearly misinformed or not updated on regional issues,” Tuazon said.
The framework for the Code of Conduct is set for resolution this year between Asean countries and China which will serve as a regional platform for ensuring peace and stability in the South China Sea.
Asean member-nations intend to complete the COC framework by the middle of this year in order to fast track the completion of the code of conduct.
“Mr. Duterte’s announcement aborts the operationalization of these diplomatic mechanisms and could trigger unnecessary reactions to what may be perceived as provocative or a breach of protocol, to say the least,” Tuazon said.
There was no need to order the AFP to occupy the eight islands and two reefs in the Spratlys to assert Philippine sovereignty because these areas had been occupied by the Philippines since 1958, the analyst pointed out.
Thus, there is a need for the Defense department to correct the President’s pronouncement to clarify that what is needed is an upgrade to existing structures in those islands.
Tuazon said the President should be more consultative and open-minded on pressing issues to avoid “incoherence and inconsistencies” in his policy pronouncements.
Political analyst Ramon Casiple however sees nothing wrong with Duterte’s order since the areas concerned have been under Philippine control for years.
He however admitted that the order could raise tensions in the region.
“They are also doing it, particularly China and Vietnam,” Casiple said.