CHINA, not the United States, has reclaimed and built controversial structures on Scarborough Shoal and other disputed areas in the West Philippine/South China Sea, despite stern objections from the Philippines. Now, instead of raising the issue with China, President Rodrigo Duterte has asked the US government to explain why it failed to prevent the Chinese from doing this. It is a move out of left field, which must have caught Mr. Sung Kim, the new US ambassador to the Philippines, completely by surprise. But DU30’s point should not be missed.
The US is not a party to the maritime and territorial dispute. It is not even a party to the United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), under which the Philippines and its allies would like to see the dispute settled. The US has no legal personality to intervene, even under our treaty arrangements. Under the 1951 US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, “an armed attack in the Pacific area on either of the Parties would be dangerous to its peace and safety” and it would “act to meet the common dangers in accordance with its constitutional processes.” But the MDT may be invoked only in an armed attack on the Philippine armed forces, public vessels or aircraft within the country’s metropolitan territory in the Pacific.
What does “metropolitan territory” mean? In a letter to Foreign Secretary Carlos P. Romulo on January 6, 1979, US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance defines the term to mean “all of the land areas and all adjacent waters subject to the sovereignty of the Republic of the Philippines, in accordance with international law, lying within the area delineated by Spain and the United States in the Treaty of Paris of December 10, 1898, and in the Treaty of Wasington concluded by the United States and Great Britain on January 2, 1930.” This does not include any of the disputed areas in the West Philippine/South China Sea. Tillerson, therefore, tended to overspeak when he warned China against reclaiming any of the disputed islands in the Spratlys.
Last July, when the Philippines won its arbitration case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, the US was among those who welcomed the award. But China refused to recognize the proceedings, and DU30 decided not to invoke the ruling in favor of his government, and decided to conduct bilateral talks with China instead. He declared separating economically and militarily from the US, and aligning himself with China and Russia “against the world.” This visibly disappointed the US, and relations between Manila and Washington began to chill until President Donald Trump, whom DU30 welcomed as a soul mate, came into office. Upon his nomination as US Secretary of State, Mr. Rex Tillerson said he would not allow China to construct any structures on any of the disputed islands, nor to have access to them.
Is Tillerson softening on China?
China’s response to this was prompt. This would mean war, said a Chinese editorial comment, and nothing more was heard from the State. More conciliatory words came from the Pentagon chief. Tillerson has since softened his stance; he described the objective and results of his recent meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing as “non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.” A summit meeting between President Trump and Xi in Florida is being arranged along the same lines. Both sides are hoping for the best. DU30’s statement seems to be out of sync with the latest developments, but DU30 has a point in suggesting (which is how I understand his statement) that the days of gunboat diplomacy are over, if only because there are now several gunboats in the lake.
This is what we are seeing now at Benham Rise. Chinese surveillance ships are reported to be conducting oceanic surveys at the vast undersea region along the Philippines’ extended continental shelf close to Aurora province, without prior clearance from the Department of Foreign Affairs. A published report quoting Maria Lourdes Montero, acting executive director of the DFA’s Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office, says China had sought permission to undertake such survey twice in 2015 and in 2016, but that the government has failed to grant such requests. Despite this, DU30 has given the impression that he has authorized the surveillance. This has prompted the Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano to amend the impeachment complaint that has been filed against the President in the House of Representatives. Until yesterday, the complaint was limited to the summary drug killings; to that has been added DU30’s alleged failure to protect the nation’s territorial integrity.
Not only the Chinese on Benham Rise
But on Wednesday evening a highly placed intelligence source told me it’s not only the Chinese, but also the Americans and the Japanese that are doing surveillance surveys at Benham Rise. The Chinese vessels, like those of other nationalities, are simply exercising the right of innocent passage, he said. But for some strange reasons, only the Chinese presence seems to invite special attention in the press. There is so much inordinate effort to intensify the propaganda pressure on DU30 from external sources, said the source. This is seen in the anti-Duterte articles that have appeared in the Western press, reproduced in the local media, led by The New York Times.
The New York Times is reputedly the world’s most influential newspaper of record, read by every serious government in the world. But not even during the most difficult period of the Marcos years, when the world press took a position against martial law, the closure of the local media establishments, and the detention of Marcos’s political enemies did the NYT or any other media organization run a series of extremely damaging reports on the government, as this world newspaper did with its three recent articles on DU30’s war on drugs and on his authoritarian makeup, without an appropriate government comment built into the articles concerned.
Fighting the world press
As Marcos’s information minister at the time, the worst I had to deal with was a powerful deputation from the world press, headed by a highly pedigreed editor from London, who threatened to shut out the Philippine economy from the world banking system, if it did not lift martial law soon. To this, I replied that Marcos had proclaimed martial law in response to an extraordinary situation, but I did not think he would submit very kindly to any kind of “blackmail” even from the most well-meaning strangers. He protested my use of the word “blackmail”—“that’s unusually strong language, sir,” he said, to which I quickly apologized, saying, “So sorry, English is not my first language, but I hope I am communicating my meaning.” Outside of this, I was given every chance to refute, rebut or answer every attack on the government.
I do not see this happening now. The government is not being heard except to accuse the NYT and the rest of the foreign media of trying to destabilize and bring down the President. So far, the most intelligent statement I have read from the presidential spokesman is one which says that perhaps the NYT could pay more attention to America’s own problems. It is completely insane. But what really breaks my heart is to read otherwise sensible and intelligent friends, whom I deeply respect and have so much affection for, adopt the government line and damn the foreign media for trying to portray the drug killings, in the only way they see them.
There are even suggestions that the figures that have repeatedly appeared in the local media until now, without any questions being raised about their veracity, are pure inventions. Assuming the figure of 7,000 to 8,000 killed has been fudged, are the “killings” as such, which we read in our everyday press, a pure figment of the imagination? Is the police failure to document these killings a reason and an excuse to deny their existence? Even more terrifying and painful for me is to listen to suggestions that perhaps we should now adopt more draconian ways of dealing with the foreign press.
This is a solution worse than the disease. In our Bill of Rights, we read, “No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the Government for redress of grievances.” But not even this has produced for us a more intelligent and responsible press. Now extinguishing this provision altogether will not make things better. It is a pity when we hear a politician wanting to smother press freedom for the peace of his soul; an absolute disgrace when we hear it from any of our brothers in the profession.
* * *
On FVR. In my column on March 3, 2017, (“Don’t talk to me now, I’m under surveillance”), which contains some recollection of my previous incarnation as a diplomatic reporter, covering then Foreign Secretary Narciso Ramos, I mistakenly referred to the future President Fidel V. Ramos as head of the Philippine Civic Action Group (Philcag) in Vietnam. His correct title at the time, FVR now tells me, was chief of staff, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. The commanding general was Brig. Gen. Gaudencio Tobias and his deputy was Col. Eduardo Garcia.
FVR also likes to assure me and my readers that as a military officer he never asked any favors from his father. This has to do with my story, as recalled in my column, about a proposal to recall the Philcag for Christmas and keep them on holiday for a while for certain reasons. I copied my story from the fresh carbon paper used in typing the Secretary’s memo to the President on this matter, so there was no chance of error. The story never suggested that this was to be a favor to the young FVR. This should keep the record intact for FVR’s future biographers.
Bishop’s milestone. Warmest congratulations to Bishop Emeritus Jose C. Sorra of the Diocese of Legazpi, on his 88th birth anniversary, the 42nd anniversary of his episcopal ordination, and the launching of his latest book, Crumbs VI, at the fabulous Cena Una restaurant in Daraga last Sunday. Bishop of Legazpi Joel (Bong) Baylon, Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus Quiambao, some members of the clergy and close friends from the laity graced the celebration.