Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano was said to have breezed through his confirmation hearing at the Commission on Appointments.
Such hearings are not always pleasant: the previous foreign affairs secretary designate was forced to admit he was a foreigner. An appointee for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources fought a long but losing battle for her post. The secretary of Social Welfare and Development was ridiculed by a senator for being a single mother—and she has not even been confirmed yet.
Unfortunately for Cayetano, that breezing through is not bound to last.
On Wednesday came reports that China had installed rocket launchers in Fiery Cross Reef—locally known as Kagitingan Reef—within Spratly Islands. There have been recent military installations on Kagitingan even as it merely existed underwater several years before. There is an air strip, an advanced radar system and a missile defense system—and now the rocket launchers.
China said in a newsletter that the installation was to ward off Vietnamese combat divers.
The Department of Foreign Affairs says it is still verifying these reports even as it has always asserted our “dominion, sovereignty and jurisdiction” over Kagitingan Reef and Panganiban Reef.
If logic, common sense and international law prevailed, both reefs would fall, without question, within the 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.
But China insists that such metrics do not exist because its so-called historic nine-dash line that must prevail. Even the decision of the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which in July 2016 ruled in favor of the Philippines and said China’s claim of 90 percent of the South China Sea was illegal, does not hold, well, water.
China just might have been emboldened by President Rodrigo Duterte’s too-friendly stance towards it. Mr. Duterte—who once joked about riding a jet ski into the disputed territory waving the Philippine flag—did not even mention our arbitration victory during the recent summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, giving the impression that the claim was not at all important to his administration. Other members of the Asean also have standing territorial disputes with China.
Mr. Duterte has also talked about joint explorations with China, showing himself a loyal ally.
Here then is the situation Mr. Cayetano finds himself in on Day One. The question is how he would comport himself, given his known devotion to his principal and his propensity to talk more than he needs to, as the country’s top diplomat. It is upon his shoulders, after all, to balance the protection of our interests with maintaining ties with the global community.
It’s one thing to be a friend; quite another to be a doormat. Cayetano is not likely to breeze through this delicate act, but if he wants to do his job well, he should be our face in asserting what we will and will not tolerate. Only then can we command some respect from our neighbor that keeps testing limits.