Foreign Secretary Alan Peter S. Cayetano on Wednesday advised critics not to be distrustful and highly suspicious of the Duterte administration’s intention in dealing with the various issues arising from the South China Sea (SCS).
“So we really have to change our mindset. We cannot be naïve. Everybody has interests there [in South China Sea], but we cannot also be paranoid,” he said in a mix of Filipino and English at a news conference in Makati City.
Cayetano made the remarks after he was asked about the seemingly slow response of the Duterte administration to the many activities in the contested areas in the West Philippine Sea.
These include the reported “militarization” of the reclaimed shoals and atolls, the continued construction in some of the islands and the alleged harassment of Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal.
The latest involves the recommendation of Defense Secretary Delfin N. Lorenzana to the Department of Foreign Affairss (DFA) to file a diplomatic protest against China over the latest images from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) on June 29.
The satellite photographs showed what appear to be Chinese armaments, radar domes and communication facilities, including shelters in the West Philippine Sea.
“Are we going to file a diplomatic protest and has the DFA, with you at the helm, file a diplomatic protest against China?” he was asked.
Cayetano replied, “Diplomatic actions are being undertaken and our interest are being protected. Diplomatic actions vary. Diplomatic protest is one of those actions and it can be verbal or nonverbal.”
He recalled an incident during former Foreign Secretary Perfecto R. Yasay Jr.’s term when he told journalists that he quietly filed a diplomatic protest about the latest Chinese activities in the WPS.
“And then by telling you that he did it quietly, it wasn’t quiet anymore so the Chinese had to react, so the other countries had to react because the claims are overlapping,” Cayetano said.
However, since the Philippines is now the chairman of Asean, Cayetano said, the administration will not tell every action it takes on the West Philippine Sea issue.
“So if I’m going to tell you every action that we are going to do, we’re not going to create the atmosphere of dialogue,” he said.
“Let me assure you that everything is being done to protect our claims. Unlike land disputes where if you don’t protest it the other claimants could mature, that’s not the law of the seas,” Cayetano added.
He said disputes over water even would remain valid even if it would take 30 years.
“If it’s not theirs, it’s not theirs. It will not mature into ownership. So if there are mistakes that have been made over the last 30 to 40 years and there are some who protested every day, and some who did not protest every day don’t worry, it will not protect our claims per se,” he said.
According to the envoy, it is normal for all claimant countries to keep filing protests.
He cited the recent example of Lorenzana who went to visit Pagasa island on a plane and when they were about to land, somebody came on the radio, telling them they are entering Chinese airspace.
“But that is standard for everyone. If you go over the features handled by Vietnamese, the Viets will tell you that you are entering Viet airspace and if they go here you are entering Philippines territory. That’s our role in diplomacy,” Cayetano said.
He added we cannot allow these incidents to affect everything else, because if we do, “then our conflict will not only be with China. It will be with Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei Darussalam to a certain extent, Taiwan”.
“So let me say one more thing about CSIS. They’re a very good organization. Their transparency program helped us a lot, but they are an American think tank. They are for American interest, not necessarily Filipino interest. Sometimes they go into Philippine interest, sometimes not,” Cayetano said.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, part of Washington’s CSIS, said new satellite images show missile shelters and radar and communications facilities being built on the Fiery Cross, Mischief and Subi Reefs in the Spratly Islands.
The US has criticized China’s build-up of military facilities on the artificial islands and is concerned they could be used to restrict free movement through the South China Sea, an important trade route.
Last month a US Navy warship sailed within 12 nautical miles of Mischief Reef in a so-called freedom of navigation operation, the first such challenge to Beijing’s claim to most of the waterway since US President Donald J. Trump took office.
China has denied US charges that it is militarizing the sea, which also is claimed by Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Cayetano, however, noted that the CSIS don’t give away all of the pictures they took of the Spratlys.
“So why don’t some of you here ask them, could you give us pictures or can you tell us what is happening in the whole West Philippine Sea in the whole South China Sea because if they show that, everyone will be protesting against each other.”
That’s because, Cayetano explained, “it is not only China who is building in the area.”
The overlapping claims in the mineral rich area of the SCS is where some $5 trillion in seaborne trade passes through.
“So that’s the mindset that the Duterte administration earlier on adopted, but is trying to explain to the people that the issues being sold to us during the last five years was that it is the Philippines versus China, which is not accurate,” Cayetano said.
“We have a dispute with them, but it is not a championship game where there are only two protagonists. It’s a multiple claimants having overlapping claims,” he added.
Cayetano said there has been no unilateral action from the time President Duterte took over but there has been an improvement since Filipino fishermen are now allowed to fish at the Scarborough Shoal, under tentative fisheries agreement.
He said Chinese navy ships are becoming more scarce, replaced by their coast guards.
“If you are saying some are building, everyone’s building,”
Cayetano said many of these claimants have had features for decades.