Duterte administration silent on Manila ‘promise’ to remove ship on Ayungin

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MALACANANG Palace and the Department of Foreign Affairs neither confirmed nor denied that the Philippine government made a commitment to remove the Philippine Navy landing ship tank BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal in West Philippine Sea.

Only Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana denied Chinese Foreign Ministry’s statement. However, the denial was not categorical as he is not the chief negotiator as far as the Philippine foreign policy is concerned.

Foreign affairs and defense analysts noted the “radio silence” from President Duterte and DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on removing BRP Sierra Madre. However, they cautioned against concluding that Manila’s silence as a confirmation.

“Let us look at this positively  because we are assuming that there are back channels happening,” University of the Philippines political science professor Dr. Clarita Carlos told Business Mirror. “Keeping quiet means we don’t have any position while talking.”

Carlos said “no President in his right mind would dare commit” removing Sierra Madre because that would mean surrendering the sovereignty to China. 

She remembered that when she was the president of the National Defense College of the Philippines when his boss, Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado, made a “steadfast” order for the Philippine Navy to ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal shoal in 1999. The shoal, she said, is not just part of the Philippine’s exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, but is also strategically located in the middle of Palawan and Panganiban Reef where China started building structures. 

At that time, she said, Beijing has already been demanding that the Philippine military remove the vintage World War II ship.

Henry Bensurto, who once headed the DFA Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office, said Beijing also threw the same statement to them in one of their consultative meetings in 2014.

“We were surprised when they said that the Philippine government made a commitment to remove BRP Sierra Madre and so we consulted various offices. We found out nothing — there was nothing on record that the Philippine government or any Philippine government official making that commitment,” Bensurto told Business Mirror.

He said as far as their records are concerned, it was the Chinese delegation who said that the Philippine government made a commitment. 

“The Chinese are putting words into our mouth. Definitely, this is their way of fudging the issue, confusing people, creating a semblance of justification,” Bensurto added.

When asked if he is privy to the commitments made to China under the Duterte administration after his stint as head of DFA maritime office, Bensurto replied, “Ahh no.”

“But assuming for argument’s sake that somebody made a commitment, it’s beyond his or her authority to do that. Because making such commitment requires meetings upon meetings and records or documents,” he explained.

Former Ambassador Victoria Bataclan agrees. She said President Duterte is handling the West Philippine Sea issue by letting Locsin and Lorenzana speak. 

“So if Secretary Lorenzana said no commitment, then there’s none, ” Bataclan, a member of the Philippine delegation that challenged China’s maritime claims over the South China Sea before the Arbitration Tribunal in The Hague, said.

Dr. Carlos said that  Philippine foreign affairs officials threading the South China Sea issue with China more carefully now that President Duterte has upped his game against China.

“He (Duterte) used the word ‘abhor’ (to the Chinese water canon incident) which is the cousin of ‘condemn.’” Carlos noted. 

Bataclan, on one hand, felt that Duterte should have “condemned” the incident. “Although he is slowly getting there. In general, I’d like to give President some credit. He is reading the situation and listening to diplomatic and defense allies more. Maybe he felt safer now that the Chinese won’t remove him from office.”

Carlos suggested that the Philippine government draw the “red line” as far as dealing with China’s bullying tactics in the West Philippine Sea., the same way the Vietnamese and Indonesians are dealing the Chinese in South China Sea

“Let’s recall Ambassador (to China) Chito Romana to show our continuing outrage,” Carlos said.

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