CHINA had no right to interfere in last Friday’s visit by Philippine officials to barangay Pagasa, the biggest in the cluster of islands and reefs composing the town of Kalayaan in Palawan – and to protest after it failed to stop the visitors led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana.
The protest was not only intrusive, but also useless, if the intention of China was to prevent similar inspections in the future and to stop the upgrading of facilities and the living conditions of some 200 villagers in that remote fifth-class town in the disputed Spratly group.
It was useless, because no foreigner can tell Lorenzana, a retired Army general, how to perform his sworn duty as it affects the national interest.
Until yesterday we were hoping that President Rodrigo Duterte himself, instead of a spokesman, would speak up on the incident, if only to make his stand clear and deliver a strong message.
The Philippines should have been the party lodging a protest against the officious interference by the Chinese in a purely domestic matter. This sovereign Republic is just looking after the well-being of its citizens however far they may be from the national capital.
Beijing beat Manila to the draw by firing a protest that put on record its “grave concern” and “dissatisfaction.” But the complaint did not stop Lorenzana and the military top brass with him that included AFP chief of staff Gen. Eduardo Año, although it disconcerted certain civil officials.
Careful not to cross China’s leaders, presidential spokesman Emilio Abella made sure there was no hint of protest in his carefully-worded statement on the matter:
“The visit of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines to Pagasa Island is part of the efforts to improve the safety, welfare, livelihood of Filipinos residing and living in the municipality of Kalayaan which is part of the province of Palawan.
“The Philippines has long been undertaking customary and routine maritime patrol and overflight in the West Philippine Sea which are lawful activities under international law. Such flights will likewise enable us to reach our municipality.”
• Duterte cancels planned June 12 visit
PRESIDENT Duterte announced early this month that he would go to Pagasa to plant the flag there on June 12, Independence Day. But after Beijing expressed displeasure, he swallowed his words and said he would send his son instead.
In flying to Pagasa, Lorenzana cited standing instructions of the Commander-in-Chief to occupy and upgrade facilities on the seven islands and three reefs (collectively called Kalayaan) claimed by the Philippines. Kalayaan is a fifth-class town with a P47-million annual budget.
Chinese troops occupying a nearby built-up island challenged Lorenzana’s C-130 plane as it approached. The exchange sounded like protocol to some, but others like National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. took it seriously. The pilots used to such challenges simply told the Chinese they were flying over Philippine territory and proceeded to land.
High point of the visit was the brisk hoisting of the Philippine flag and the singing of the national anthem amplified by a sound system.
Lorenzana told the crowd that P1.6 billion has been allocated for the island’s development, including its 1.2-kilometer airstrip, a school building, water-desalination and solar power equipment, a fish port, residents’ dwellings and quarters for troops. A beaching ramp is due to be finished by July so ships can bring in materials and supplies.
The nation is anxious, meanwhile, to know exactly what deals President Duterte had entered into with his counterpart — as Beijing is already lecturing Manila about honoring some “consensus” between him and China President Xi Jin-ping.
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang told the media: “We hope that the Philippine side could cherish the hard-won sound momentum of development the bilateral relations are experiencing, faithfully follow the consensus reached between the two leaderships, maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea, and promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations.”
• Can he stand the heat in the kitchen?
MR. DUTERTE has his hands full dealing with the superpowers — United States, China and Russia – whose military presence and that of North Korea brandishing long-range potentially nuclear-loaded missiles have raised the temperature in the region.
The guessing game deepens as President Duterte appears to be rethinking his announced turning away from the United States, its treaty ally whose Pacific forces are reportedly set to resume their joint naval exercises that he has suspended.
Speculation is rife on his possible posture as host to US President Donald Trump who reportedly would attend the summit in Manila late this year with leaders of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations on ASEAN’s 50th founding anniversary.
Also in the works is a state visit to Moscow where Mr. Duterte plans to sign agreements with President Vladimir Putin. Meantime, he has opened Manila Bay to the Russian navy as he fantasizes of a mythical Beijing-Moscow-Manila “axis” against the world.
Mr. Duterte tackles an increasingly crowded diplomatic calendar even as he launches an ambitious $160-billion infrastructure plan over the next six years to make up for the development slowdown resulting from the underspending of the previous Aquino administration.
This accelerated program is not likely to draw away focus and finances from his bloody signature drug drive that has elicited cheers from local supporters and jeers from human rights advocates abroad, including sectors in the US, the European Union and the United Nations.