Why not try using our seasoned diplomats?

The State shall protect the nation’s marine wealth in its archipelagic waters, territorial sea and exclusive economic zone, and reserve its use and enjoyment exclusively to Filipino citizens.”

That’s how direct and clear the mandate on the government is under Section 2 of Article XII (National Economy and Patrimony) of the 1987 Philippine Constitution. It states that “All lands of the public domain, waters, minerals, coal, petroleum, and other mineral oils, all forces of potential energy, fisheries, forests or timber, wildlife, flora and fauna, and other natural resources are owned by the State.”

“With the exception of agricultural lands, all other natural resources shall not be alienated,” the provision emphasizes, adding: “The exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the State.”

On the above-quoted constitutional provision now revolves a controversy between President Duterte and his defenders, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, all the public figures and everyone else who aver that it has been violated by his decision to allow Chinese fishermen to fish within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the West Philippine Sea. One consistent critic has even raised the issue of impeaching the President for “culpable violation of the Constitution” and “betrayal of public trust.”

In this piece, I don’t want to dwell on impeachment. Given Duterte’s control over the House of Representatives (which would initiate the impeachment process) and his strong influence in the incoming Senate (which would act as court and rule on the impeachment charges) such a move has scant chance of prospering.

However, Duterte’s truculent response and ominous threat to those who may dare to impeach him is unfortunate, to say the least.

“Impeach ako? Kulungin ko sila lahat. Subukan nyo (Impeach me? I’ll put then all in jail. Just try it,” the Philippine STAR quoted him in its front page story yesterday. The outburst betrays Duterte’s increasingly tyrannical bent towards every real, or perceived, critic of his rule. Which might have spurred this twit from the youngest and would-be-longest-surviving magistrate of the Supreme Court, Justice Marvic Leonen: “In a true democracy, leaders are not feared. They are respected.”

Let’s focus on how President Duterte has reacted to those who invoked the above-quoted Charter provision, starting with Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio. The others were Vice President Leni Robredo, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales. A number of senators have also weighed in on the issue critical of Duterte’s stance.

“The Philippines has exclusive sovereign right to exploit all the fish, oil, gas and other mineral resources in its EEZ [including the Recto Bank],” Carpio said. “This sovereign right belongs to the Filipino people and no government official can waive this sovereign right of the people without their consent.”

Duterte’s reaction was derisive: he called Carpio “crazy” and “stupid.” The latter soberly dismissed the personal attacks as “not worth commenting on.”

But the President then went on to utter crude remarks about the Constitution (which in his oath of office he vowed to implement, protect and defend):

“That is a provision for the thoughtless and the senseless,” he said. “The protection of our economic rights about the economic zone resolves this?” he asked quizzically, then added, “I am protecting the country and 110 million Filipinos.”

Duterte seems to be saying that he was certain the Chinese would not respect the Philippine Constitution, regarding it as just “a piece of paper” not worth going to war over. He said:

“I will go and tell them [the Chinese], get out, this is the Constitution. They will tell you, ‘You run out of toilet paper, use that.’ If they say, ‘You present me a Constitution like that, and we have this ruckus claiming the same place is our jurisdiction, I will say, if you do not have something to wipe your butt with, use your Constitution.” Then he added, “Because that means war.”

“That piece of paper, the Constitution,” Duterte cynically averred, “will become meaningless, with no spirit except desperation, agony and suffering.”

Why would asserting sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone equate to war? Duterte recalled that in his first meeting with China’s president Xi Jinping in 2016, the latter had warned him that “there will be trouble” when he talked of his plan to dig for oil in the West Philippine Sea. Apparently, he interpreted the word “trouble” to mean a shooting war. Thus, he pointed out that China’s missiles could reach Manila in seven minutes should a war be provoked.

At the same time, Duterte said, he had become friends with Xi and they had come to an agreement. “It was a mutual agreement. Let us give and take: you fish there, I fish here. But China said we have others so we took this for ourselves,” he recalled, referring to fishing in the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal near Zambales, a traditional common fishing ground which China’s maritime forces had seized control of since 2012.

“Now, they say, ‘You have to ban China, prohibit them [from fishing],” he remonstrated in a speech before the Presidential Security Group. “If I prohibit them, how do I enforce?”

He segued with a ridiculous idea, challenging three allied nations that have been sailing close to China’artificially-build islands in the Spratlys. “This is my challenge, America, Britain, France,” he said, “Let us assemble in Palawan and proceed directly to Spratlys. Let us seize whatever we can seize.” No one, though, has called him “crazy” or “stupid” for concocting such a plan.

What, indeed, can President Duterte do to enforce his Constitutional mandate in seeking to resolve the maritime issues and disputes in the West Philippine Sea? Is he really so helpless in dealing with our giant neighbor?

I wonder if he has ever consulted, and harnessed, our country’s seasoned diplomats, to creatively maximize the toolbox of initiatives, at various levels and through different institutional avenues, that is available for resolving disputes between sovereign nations?

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Email: satur.ocampo@gmail.com

Published in Philippine Star
June 29, 2019

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