"Diplomacy seems to be working, even if on a limited scale."
Has the Philippine government sold the country's sovereignty down the river to China? Has it totally acquiesced to Beijing on the matter of our territorial and maritime claims in the South China Sea, as critics claim?
From our vantage point, however, diplomacy seems to be working, even if on a limited scale, as we have pointed out in an earlier piece on the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism (BCM) established by the two sides to tackle issues related to the South China Sea. So far, this body has met six times since 2017.
Besides the BCM, there's our own Department of Foreign Affairs DFA) that keeps tabs on development in the SCS, such as the presence of a swarm of ships believed to be part of Beijing's maritime militia in the Kalayaan group of islands earlier this year.
According to a DFA release in end-May, they have already filed at least 100 diplomatic protests against various incursions in the West Philippine Sea since 2016. I came across a news item last month—which unfortunately I couldn't find anymore on the Internet—where the DFA said the number had risen to more than 120, with most of them having been answered by the Chinese authorities, but no details were made available.
The DFA's 100th diplomatic protest dated May 28 is against the "incessant deployment, prolonged presence, and illegal activities" of Chinese vessels particularly off Pag-asa, also known as Thitu Island.
The DFA asserted that the "Pag-asa Islands is an integral part of the Philippines, over which it has sovereignty and jurisdiction."
In April, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr vowed to "fire off" a diplomatic protest against China every day to clear the country's 370-km exclusive economic zone of any illegal Chinese vessel. That was the time the DFA said at least 220 Chinese vessels started swarming around Julian Felipe or Whitsun Reef.
In the meantime, in the legislature, a bill has been filed urging the government to take additional steps to secure the country's maritime domain through the installation of 12 naval outposts in key areas in the country. Under House Bill No. 9420, or the proposed Philippine Navy Forward Operating Bases Act, Surigao del Sur Representative Johnny Pimentel wants the bases to be constructed in 12 key areas in the country.
Four of the naval bases would be positioned in Luzon's western seaboard and three in the eastern coast to guard the West Philippine Sea and the Philippine Rise. These outposts would serve as the future staging and resupply sites for the Navy's new generation of warships.
That the Philippines is asserting national sovereignty and territorial integrity according to what our Constitution says is also clear when Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said early this month that the Philippines would not honor Chinese laws requiring vessels to make a full report to Chinese authorities before being granted passage through the South China Sea.
This was the Defense chief's reaction to a Sept. 1 notice by China’s Maritime Safety Administration imposing the requirement on submersibles, nuclear ships and all vessels carrying radioactive materials, bulk oil, chemicals, liquefied gas and other toxic materials.
Secretary Locsin echoed this stand that the Philippines will not acknowledge China's efforts to impose reporting requirements: "What reporting requirements? We've not heard of any requirements nor would we care if there are any; the West Philippine Sea comprising our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) is ours. Period!"
Earlier, in August, Locsin said at the ASEAN Post Ministerial Conference with China: "A peaceful South China Sea is essential to its protection and sustainable management. Disputes in it should be resolved peacefully in accordance with international law, including the 1982 UNCLOS and in the recent light of the 2016 Arbitral Award which singles out no one, was carefully crafted as to be unusable as a weapon for disputation; and most helpful in clarifying maritime issues…As outgoing Country Coordinator for negotiations on the Code of Conduct, the Philippines tried to make as much progress on the COC negotiations as circumstances allowed."
We agree completely. Our bilateral relations with our closest neighbor to the west should be based on mutual respect and mutual trust, as well as a shared commitment to maintain regional peace and stability.
Biz groups slam proposal to criminalize SALN commentaries
We totally concur with the stand taken by various business groups dated 15 September 2021 vigorously condemning the proposal by Ombudsman Samuel Martires to punish with a prison term of no less than five years anyone who comments on the SALNs of public officials.
If he had his way—we hope not—and Congress agreed with him, then it should be retroactive. That way, he himself would be covered by his own proposal, because he was among the Supreme Court justices who voted to oust Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno from office based on a quo warranto petition for failure to file her SALNs. Did Martires comment on Sereno's SALN then, or did he not?
At any rate, we are publishing in full the brief statement by the business groups on the issue.
"We oppose the proposal to criminalize commenting on Statements of Assets and Liabilities (SALNs) of government officials, because it would violate our freedom of speech, a pillar of our democracy. We have libel and slander laws to deal with abuse of free speech. We do not need another law.
"We also oppose the proposal because the SALN is part of a system of laws and institutions designed to promote integrity. The Ombudsman is part of that system and should be the first to insist on transparency.
"Integrity is critical to our society and leaders in government, business, and other sectors, should set the tone. We need leaders with integrity who will work for the people, not themselves, who will ensure public resources go to the common good, not their private interest.
"As well, exactly a year ago, access to SALNs was restricted. To now criminalize comments on them would in effect chip away at our constitutional right to public information and official records. These would be less useful if we can’t discuss them.
"From a business perspective, a culture and environment of integrity and good governance is more and more needed to attract investment to create jobs. To attract investment, business people need to know they have a fair chance to succeed. A fair chance that comes from not having competitors who have an unfair edge because those competitors are bribing officials. A fair chance that comes from not having to bribe officials themselves just to stay in business. The SALN — and the ability to access and comment on it — is important because bribes often end up in assets.
"When used properly and well, the SALN can help identify and remove corrupt officials, entrust government to true public servants, and encourage small and big businessmen to invest and create jobs. This has never been more important than now, as we try to beat and recover from COVID."
The statement was signed by the Financial Executives Institute of the Philippines (FINEX); Integrity Initiative; Judicial Reform Initiative; and the Makati Business Club. Kudos to them for upholding what is right and proper in a democratic society.