The country’s foreign policy direction on the West Philippine Sea issue is what President Rodrigo Duterte says it is depending on his mood and the audience. At least, that is what appears to be the case.
He has flipped flopped on the matter in verbose ways – at one point during the presidential campaign vowing to plant the Philippine flag in the Spratlys, only to recall it as nothing but a joke. From the outset of his presidency, Manila has pursued what it calls an “independent foreign policy”, hewing close to Beijing in exchange for development loans and funding, and throwing verbal jabs at the country’s traditional ally the United States.
The administration opted to shelve its strategic legal victory at the international arbitral court in The Hague which upheld the country’s territorial sovereignty over the WPS and declared as void China’s expansive 9-dash line map. In the president’s assertion, insisting on the enforcement of the ruling means provoking a war with China which the country can never win.
On the ground, the projects undertaken by the previous administrations have ground to a halt, including the upgrading of the runway in Pag Asa and the plans of the civil authorities to open it for non-military use to pave way for tourism and other development initiatives in the island. Also dropped, it has seemed, was the development of the Oyster Bay facility by the Philippine Navy, supported by US funds, that will upgrade the support facilities to the Philippine-occupied islands.
In securing a loan deal with China, the country also referenced its offshore energy resource potentials as a pawn in case of a loan default, thereby compromising the energy-rich Reed Bank west of Palawan.
The present state-of-affairs in Pag Asa and the West Philippine Sea is nothing short of what Beijing could ever want beyond virtually taking over the entire islands for a song.
It was yet another pirouette when two weeks ago while on an official visit to Palawan, President Duterte warned China to stay away from Pag Asa island in the wake of reports of swarming by Chinese fishing vessels around the occupied island. He said it in the manner of drawing a final line on the sand which, if crossed, will sour its relations with China.
Beijing has responded in its usual canned manner of asserting its historical claims over the entire South China Sea, with its own terse warnings clothed in diplomatese.
Unless the Duterte administration does something beyond issuing patriotic statements, Malacañang’s latest posturing is nothing but knee-jerk rhetoric. It ought to do better than that, and push ahead with some real work on the ground such as completing the runway rehabilitation and the development of a port facility to improve governance and spur commerce in the Kalayaan municipality.
Such actions will most certainly rail China. But not until we see this administration standing up to Beijing on this and doing something concrete to advance the country’s interest, we must say that this new posturing by Malacañang is just a lot of hot air signifying nothing.