FOREIGN Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano on Wednesday shrugged off the presence of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
Cayetano, at a news conference at the House of Representatives where he was scheduled to brief lawmakers on the situation in the West Philippine Sea, said the presence of Chinese ships was not a cause for concern and did not warrant a diplomatic protest.
“The presence of ships alone does not mean anything,” Cayetano said in response to revelations by Magdalo Party-list Rep. Gary Alejano that China had deployed two frigates and a Coast Guard vessel and two large fishing boats with their maritime militia just one to three nautical miles north of Pag-asa Island.
“Let me ask congressman Alejano why we were not concerned about the US conducting freedom of navigation [operations in the West Philippine Sea]. Their ships are so huge. Why? Because they are our allies,” Cayetano said.
He refused, however, to confirm or deny Alejano’s information.
Instead, he said the country should learn to develop “mutual trust” with China in the same manner it trusts the United States, a longtime ally.
Cayetano lamented how most people “keep looking at China as the enemy and [that] every time they have a movement, we react too much.”
“If we start developing mutual trust with them, we [just] pick up and phone, call them [and ask] why do you have so many ships there?” Cayetano said.
Cayetano said Alejano must reminded that “there’s a thin line between informing us and stirring up the situation.”
“There is no situation there that is a cause of lowering mutual trust among all of claimants [countries],” he said.
Nevertheless, Cayetano said he appreciates Alejano’s gestures to call the government’s attention.
He said the government will not likely file any diplomatic protest against China, saying the DFA is in constant communication with Chinese counterparts.
“That’s why we use diplomatic action,” he said. “In the past it’s our strategy to confront China every opportunity we have and diplomatic protest is one of the instruments we use. That’s not our strategy anymore, our strategy now is to have peace, stability and dialogue and so far it’s working.”
A former diplomat cautioned against megaphone diplomacy after Alejano reported the presence of a Chinese flotilla in the sandbars on Pag-asa Island, an area within the Philippines’ 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone.
The former permanent representative to the United Nations for the Philippines Lauro Baja Jr. said it is better to say nothing if there is no factual basis to the claim.
“I don’t know where Alejano gets his information and how he arrived at his conclusions… but keeping our mouth shut does not mean doing nothing,” Baja added.
Backchanneling is an accepted and effective diplomatic practice, he said.
Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Robespierre Bolivar said that the department has yet to receive official reports from concerned security agencies about the Chinese ships.
But Baja said Cayetano’s approach gave the rest of the world the impression that the Philippines is an apologist for China.
“The fish gets caught through its mouth. If our statements, by design or coincidence, reflect Chinese views, they will only give currency to the perception that we are apologists of China, like Cambodia and others,” Baja said.
This, he added, might confuse or amuse the international community about the way the Philippines conducts diplomacy.
UP professor Jay Batongbacal said Cayetano’s approach seems to be in accordance with a longstanding Chinese request not to play up disputes in the media.
“This deference is key to the new normal in Philippine-China relations or handling of the South China Sea disputes,” Batongbacal said.
Barongbacal said for the Philippines to make “unfriendly” comments may be undermine the agreement between Manila and Beijing for a renewed diplomatic relationship.
Cayetano’s statement was the latest indication of warmer ties between the Philippines and China after years of tension under the prior administration of Benigno Aquino III.
Since taking power last year, President Rodrigo Duterte has sought closer investment and trade links with Beijing, including over resources in the South China Sea.
Aquino brought China before an international arbitration tribunal over its claims to 80 percent of one of the world’s most strategic waterways, and won.
He also strengthened the Philippine alliance with the US to try to check China’s expansion in the South China Sea, where it has built a series of artificial reefs, creating a platform to assert its claims.
Malacanang on Wednesday said that they have yet to confirm reports on the presence of Chinese ships that were spotted near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs [DFA], in coordination with relevant national security agencies, is verifying reports that Chinese ships were seen near Pag-Asa Island in the West Philippine Sea,” Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said in a statement. With John Paolo Bencito
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