The real Cayetano balancing act

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Students of Civics are taught that the President of the Philippines is the high official whose duty it is to ensure that the nation’s territorial integrity is safeguarded and defended at all times. This concept is impressed even more into the minds of law students, who in Constitutional Law class are taught that under the Constitution the President has the bounden duty to protect and defend the “national sovereignty, territorial integrity and national interest” of the Philippines. There is no greater Presidential responsibility than the maintenance and defense of these attributes of independent nationhood, law students are told.

Feeling threatened by China’s “nine-dash-line” claim to practically the entire South China Sea, the Philippine government in 2014 sought a ruling from the UN-supported Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) on the validity of China’s extravagant claim. The PCA ruled against China, stating that the “nine-dash-line” claim had no historical validity and reiterating the Philippines’ right to exploit the resources of its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The world considered it an immense victory for the Philippines, but very early in his administration newly-elected President Rodrigo Duterte made it clear that he was not deliriously happy about the PCA ruling and that his administration would seek to enforce the ruling “later on” so as to not disturb his quest for closer Chinese-Philippine ties. If it annoys China, Mr. Duterte explained, the Philippines will not be able to avail of Chinese investments, loans and other economic goodies.

Accordingly, the PCA ruling has gone unenforced by deed or even by word. The Duterte administration has been tiptoeing around the issue, assiduously working to prevent the inclusion in official Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) documents of any reference to the Philippine victory at the PCA. “We must not rock the China boat” appears to have become the Duterte administration’s mantra.

In an effort to enhance the Duterte administration’s playbook, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs has introduced the B word—balancing—into the discussion. Addressing a House of Representatives committee hearing recently, Allan Peter Cayetano said this: “The Philippines is trying to balance territorial sovereignty with other national interests in its foreign relations.” He went on to say: “The work is a balancing act, your honors.”

 Secretary Cayetano tried to make it appear to the Representatives that the “balancing” that he was trying to achieve was between competing Philippine interests. “There’s no argument,” he said. “We will not compromise our territorial integrity just to get tourists and investments.” Tourists and investments as against territorial integrity: the nation’s top diplomat would have the Filipino people believe that these are the interests that he is trying to balance. Nice try, Mr. Secretary, but not good enough.

The truth of the matter is the “balancing act” that Secretary Cayetano spoke about involves two fiercely competing interests, namely, China’s interest in not having the clear PCA ruling gain traction in the international community and the Philippines’ interest in obtaining economic benefits from China. If the balancing scale were to tilt in favor of China, the Philippines would get its economic goodies; but if the scale were to tilt in favor of the Philippines, China would become angry—Mr. Duterte reported that Chinese President Xi even threatened to go to war against the Philippines—and there would be no economic benefits for this country from China.

That balancing act—between China’s interest and this country’s interest – is the balance that Allan Peter Cayetano and his boss are really trying to achieve. There’s no need—and it is against President Duterte’s and Secretary Cayetano’s oaths of office—to try and balance the nation’s territorial integrity against economic benefits from other countries. The nation’s territorial integrity must always come first.

Which leads to the logical question. When do President Duterte and Secretary Cayetano intend to put an end to the balancing act and begin asserting the Philippines’ rights under the PCA ruling? When President Duterte is about to leave office?

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