DURING the strongman rule of Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was the premier, most respected agency of government. His foreign secretary, Carlos P. Romulo, was legendary in diplomatic circles, and the popular quip about him was that his towering intellect was in inverse proportion to his height.
By contrast, the son’s foreign affairs department has been so inept, his foreign secretary appearing to have stage fright so serious he has been virtually invisible.
The DFA, my sources claimed, wasn’t even consulted on the Marcos government giving the US access to four more of our military camps that Americans can use for a war effort.
The South China Sea (SCS) territorial and maritime-area disputes have been the burning, most important issue in our foreign relations, with the military and the three-vessel Philippine Coast Guard practically announcing to the world that they will courageously fight the Chinese if ever they intrude into our “territory.”
But does the DFA website have statements or position papers explaining what the SCS disputes are all about? Contrast that to the information in the website of the Chinese embassy in the Philippines. It has 28 papers posted on its website on what the SCS disputes are, and very detailed explanations on China’s sovereignty claims over what it calls the Nansha Islands (Kalayaan Island Group to us) and the Huangyan Island (Panatag).
Well, there is one “document” posted at the DFA website about the SCS dispute, a press release on the recent incident at Ayungin Shoal, in which a Chinese Coast Guard vessel apparently maneuvered to block a Philippine Coast Guard ship from resupplying the Marines manning the rusty LST that was ordered deliberately run aground by President Estrada in 1998 as our pathetic proof that we are enforcing our sovereignty there.
The press release quoted the DFA spokesman as saying that “The Department asserted that the actions of the Chinese vessel against the PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) vessel constituted… a threat to its sovereign rights and jurisdiction over the Philippines exclusive economic zone.”
Does this mean that the DFA is protesting the Chinese action because Ayungin Shoal is within our exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and not because it is part of the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) — which forms part of our territory — a municipality of Palawan as created by the 1978 Presidential Decree 1596?
If the claim is that it is within our EEZ drawn from the mainland, then we give up the KIG as a sovereign territory: How can it be both an EEZ and a sovereign territory?
The spokesman’s statement is understandable of course if she herself is confused, given the fact that the DFA has not issued any official statement explaining whether the Philippine government has dropped its claim since 1978 that the KIG, a polygonal area including not just the reefs and islands but the waters there, is part of our sovereign territory, indeed a municipality of Palawan.
I challenge the DFA to post a clear explanation of what constitutes our sovereign territory, our basis for claiming why the Chinese don’t have any right to be in the Spratlys, and a map showing our national territory (is it still the boundaries established by the 1898 Treaty of Paris or that defined by the baselines in the 2009 Baselines Law?), our territorial seas, and our EEZ. I had requested the National Mapping and Resource Information Agency for such a map, invoking the Freedom of Information executive order three years ago. I was told that there was as yet no map as they are awaiting a law defining the precise location of the boundaries of our EEZ.
We’ve been hearing again and again that we are protecting our EEZ from the Chinese. But do those officials really know what they are talking about?
The ineptness of the DFA is dangerous. By not explaining the nature of our disputes with China in the SCS region, it is portraying the superpower as an irrational aggressor. Even otherwise well-informed columnists in this newspaper refer to China as a “bully” when in fact it is merely, at least in its own mind, defending its sovereignty over the Spratlys or the KIG that it had established even before the Philippines was created as a nation.
It is in reality a country which like Vietnam has its own justifications in the dispute, and therefore with which we should calmly negotiate for a resolution of the conflict, or at least a mechanism by which incidents like the recent Ayungin laser-beaming one could be avoided.
Because the DFA has shirked in explaining these to the nation, an anti-China frenzy is being whipped up, fueled by the Americans, which could make our military and coast guard, thinking they are being patriots, engage them in armed conflict. We will of course be the losers if such hysteria leads to a freezing, even just a cooling, of our relations with China, especially in the business sphere, which is after all our biggest trading partner and the superpower in our neighborhood.
Provoke China again?
My jaw dropped when I read the editorial in this newspaper the other day that in a disclosure to the Philippine Stock Exchange last week, the Manuel V. Pangilinan-led PXP Energy Corp. said that it had formally requested the government to lift the moratorium on the company’s gas and oil exploration activities near the Recto Bank (Reed Bank) in the Spratlys.
After claiming that, the editorial went on to blame former president Duterte for issuing the moratorium and that PXP should boldly pursue its exploration work for the sake of the country.
Unfortunately that report that PXP was raring to explore was totally wrong, and the writer was gullible to believe a single Manila Bulletin report claiming that. That Bulletin article was an “SS,” Filipino journalists’ term (derived from the Filipino term for masturbation) for an invented news article based on a bit of information, hyped by the writer.
Indeed, there was a disclosure submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission by PXP but it was its press release on the financial highlights ending Dec. 31, 2022.
That piece of information in the disclosure “SSed” by the reporter was a routinary sentence: “Each of PXP and Forum will continue to coordinate with the government on the resumption of activities in both SC 75 and SC 72 (the Reed Bank area to be explored).” All of PXP’s reports have to mention that, even if exploration there is a pipe-dream, as its investments for there account for two-thirds of its investments.
The report that Pangilinan would like to resume exploration of the Reed Bank would have been very significant (if it were true) because it was PXP’s attempt to do so in 2011 that triggered President Aquino 3rd’s belligerent stance towards China. PXP’s survey vessel, the Veritas Voyager was intercepted by Chinese government vessels and shooed away from the area.
For some undisclosed reason Aquino 3rd blew his top, and since that incident adopted a belligerent stance against China, which eventually led first, to the Scarborough Shoal standoff, and then to the disastrous arbitration suit against China that was a failed attempt to get the international body to rule that China had no sovereign rights in the Reed Bank.
If the government gives PXP the go-ahead to resume its exploration in the Reed Bank, that would surely lead to another, worse confrontation with China. Even Pangilinan has said he wouldn’t want to make the same mistake, telling reporters in June last year: “With the best of intentions on our part, we want to continue with our work program to determine if there’s gas in the Reed Bank. But if outside forces will stop us, what should we do? Who will protect us? We are a private sector company.”
Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao
Book orders: www.rigobertotiglao.com/shop