By Camille A. Aguinaldo and
Charmaine A. Tadalan
FOREIGN AFFAIRS Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano on Sunday said the Philippines under the Duterte administration has more gains with China because of its “prudent and patient diplomatic approach” compared with the previous administration.
Also on Sunday, Malacañang confirmed that a Chinese aircraft had landed in Davao City last Friday “for refueling,” but stopped short of describing the vehicle as a military plane, images of which were spread on social media.
“Under the management and administration of President Duterte, we have more gains today. The previous approach is loud but (there are) a lot of losses. There are victories, there are gains but many losses. But doing it through a prudent and patient diplomatic approach, there are many results,” Mr. Cayetano told reporters after the arrival of 100 overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) in Pasay City.
For instance, Mr. Cayetano said the military has reported less than 10 incidents of grave concern in the last two years compared with the previous administration where there were incidents every week.
“So we need to see not only the problem but the solutions that were already laid down,” he said.
Sought for comment, foreign policy expert Richard J. Heydarian of De La Salle University said the Philippines’ position with China has been a “mixed baggage” under the Duterte administration.
He said the administration may be lauded for its efforts to open communication channels with China, for raising the prospects of Chinese investments in the country, and also for allowing the Filipino fishermen easier access to Scarborough shoal.
However, Mr. Heydarian said the Philippines’ position was actually worse in the past years due to China’s militarization in the South China Sea. He also pointed out that the Duterte administration “overly emphasized” its engagement with China, noting that being “meek and humble” with China still had not shown evidence that it would be “merciful” to the Philippines.
“The fairest way of looking at this is to say it has been a mixed baggage. It is unfair to blame the Duterte administration for our deteriorating strategic position on the ground but I think it is also very unfortunate that the Duterte administration has not leveraged our arbitration award in the best way possible,” he said in a phone interview with BusinessWorld.
Mr. Heydarian said the Aquino administration had been strong in its confrontation with China but also noted the past administration forgot the value of maintaining robust communication channels with the Asian power.
He also pointed out the Aquino administration over-relied on while the Duterte administration underappreciated its alliance with the United States.
“It’s only the United States that’s willing to give the kind of assistance that gives us a fighting chance in terms of deterring China,” he said.
For his part, defense analyst and Institute for Policy, Strategy and Development Studies Fellow Jose Antonio A. Custodio disagreed with Mr. Cayetano, pointing out the lack of reported incidents during the Duterte administration was caused by the lack of any presence of Philippines ships in the area.
“If the logic of Cayetano is to be followed, then there should be no incidents with the Chinese regarding our fishermen who are in the area. However, there are frequent harassments done by the Chinese and the Duterte administration ignores these,” he told BusinessWorld in a phone message.
Mr. Custodio also added that the Philippines’ economic gains in its relations with China were not a “win-win situation” as proclaimed. He said the influx of Chinese workers in the country has denied jobs to Filipinos while the loans the country secured with China has been questioned following the recent situation of Malaysia where its loans with China are being reviewed.
He also dismissed such gains as the provisional fishing agreements with China on Scarborough Shoal and the joint exploration on the South China Sea.
“These agreements are not gains because they legitimize China’s territorial seizure and (this) does away with our legal victory,” he said.
Also on Sunday, Mr. Cayetano said Filipino fishermen may now return to their fishing grounds in Scarborough Shoal after he was assured by the Chinese Ambassador that “they will apply the law very harshly to the violators.”
“(Foreign Affairs Under)secretary Ernesto C. Abella talked to the Chinese Ambassador the other day. Last night, I was with him in one event. The Chinese Ambassador assured that they will apply the law very harshly to the violators. We have an agreement with them that fishermen were free to fish, except on areas that are protected because of ecology and environment,” he said.
He also urged the Filipino fishermen to report to the DFA any similar incident in the future so investigations could be conducted.
“But it’s also a lesson for us that agreements need enforcement mechanisms and we continue to talk to China. As of now, the discussion is we discipline our own Coast Guard and fishermen, we discipline them,” he said.
For his part, Magdalo Representative Gary C. Alejano maintained that the “information” he received on the alleged order to stop patrol operations in the South China Sea (SCS) was true.
Unang-una, hindi kuryente ‘yan (First of all, it’s not false news). I am 100% sure, because the source has the authority to say that and he relayed to me the information personally,” Mr. Alejano said in a radio interview, Sunday morning, hours before Mr. Cayetano’s press briefing also that morning.
The statement was made after Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) spokesman Colonel Edgard A. Arevalo denied claims there was an order coming from President Rodrigo R. Duterte to stop patrol operations in the SCS.
Ang information d’yan, may instruction na wag na magpatrolya sa Scarborough Shoal and West Philippine Sea (WPS) kasi nga wala din naman effect ‘yan at baka ma-offend pa yung China, ang sabi ng Armed Forces. (The information was there was an instruction to stop patrolling Scarborough Shoal and the West Philippine Sea because this doesn’t really have any effect and it might offend China — that’s from the Armed Forces.) I don’t want to say which specific person,” Mr. Alejano said.
He added; “Ang sagot doon ay hindi ba magiging taliwas yan sa mandato ng Armed Forces na protektahan ang sovereignty and territorial integrity ng bansa? Nasa Constitution yan. So nagkaroon ng, in a way, negotiation, or discussion, nag-compromise na lang. ‘O sige, isang patrolya na lang kada buwan.” (The answer to that is, wouldn’t that be contradicting the mandate of the Armed Forces to protect our sovereignty and the country’s territorial integrity? That’s in the Constitution. So this led to, in a way, (a) negotiation, or discussion, just a compromise. Okay, we’ll just conduct one patrol a month.)
But Mr. Alejano also clarified receiving this information late last year yet, and that he never mentioned the directive came from Mr. Duterte, but rather from Malacañang.
Kahit itong iisang patrolya kada buwan, it is hardly followed…. Minsan, pag-monitor ko, may tatlong buwan na wala pa ring patrolya (Even the monthly patrol is hardly followed. Sometimes, when I check, three months have passed and still no patrol),” Mr. Alejano said.
Mr. Arevalo, for his part, said, “Nagpapatuloy po ‘yan, regular po ‘yan. (The patrols are regular and continuing.) At ang lahat ng information (And all the informatin we get), we translate it to a report we provide to our senior, higher headquarters, higher offices of the government.”
Mr. Alejano said going to war with China is “never an option,” in asserting our rights over SCS.
Kahit na sinasabi ng Pangulo na gi-giyerahin tayo or makikipag-gyera tayo (Even if the President says [China] will wage war with us or we will start a war [on China]), when we assert our sovereignty, that is not an option, there are so many options,” he said.
Mr. Alejano said the government needs to increase spending on military modernization. “It should be a policy direction (so that the) budget will come. Kung ‘di natin priority yan, walang budget yan (If we don’t give this priority, there’ll be no budget).”
He had previously filed a resolution proposing to allocate 2% of the Philippines’ gross domestic product on defense spending annually.
Regarding the Chinese aircraft landing last Friday, Presidential Spokesperson Harry L. Roque, Jr. said in a statement on Sunday afternoon: “As per records of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), the Chinese aircraft made a technical stop in Davao City on June 8 for mere refueling.”
He added that relevant government agencies had “closely coordinated for the aircraft’s refueling, which followed established procedures.”
“According to the permit granted, the aircraft was bound for Cairns, Australia. As verified and reported by CAAP, no movement of passengers was made outside the terminal building. The Chinese aircraft used a local handler, Transnational Aviation Support Service, to arrange the requirements for the permit. The flight was given an entry and exit permit, like any other private flights,” the spokesman said.
For his part, Special Assistant to the President (SAP) Christopher “Bong” T. Go said that “technical stops by foreign government and commercial planes, including for refueling purposes, are closely coordinated by our relevant government agencies following established domestic procedure and in consideration of existing agreements. The same courtesy is extended to Philippine government aircrafts when technical stops need to be undertaken.”
“The Department of National Defense (DND), Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), CAAP — and other relevant agencies — work together to ensure that requesting parties comply with our domestic procedures and requirements,” the President’s aide also said.
Last Saturday, Mr. Custodio posted on Facebook a photo of the aircraft by the Philippine Plane Spotters Group and said in part: “My first time to see a Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force IL-76 military transport plane which landed in Davao City Airport.” — with Arjay L. Balinbin