By NINEZ CACHO-OLIVARES / THE DAILY TRIBUNE NEWS
There can be a lot less angst from former foreign service officials and a lot of Filipinos — military and police included, when one tries to separate President Rody Duterte’s chaff from his grain. It’s not an easy task at all, but after some nine months, it becomes a bit easier for some to do so. A few days ago, Mr. Duterte made a bold statement on possibly selling Philippine islands in the South China Sea to China if the country becomes “very rich.” Such a statement coming from the Philippine President may have rattled some former and even present foreign affairs officials as well as Filipino experts and analysts on the South China Sea. Former top Filipino diplomat Secretary Albert del Rosario stated that such a message would translate to Malacañang not faithfully executing its role to defend what rightfully belongs to the country. Albert del Rosario is a good friend, and really was, when he served as Foreign Affairs secretary, a hard worker. He probably is not used to Duterte’s ways, especially when he is ticked off by something or someone. Del Rosario said these off-the-cuff remarks “put us in a poor strategic position without the benefit of flexibility, especially if there is a need to negotiate. “The legality of statements made is not clear and should be studied. It could be a very thin line, since it can be further argued that the Palace is not faithfully executing its role to defend what is ours,” del Rosario said. He emphasized that the arbitration outcome stands, since nothing can be done to affect its validity. Still and all, Duterte should learn to be more diplomatic and choose his words carefully since words do matter, and because he has become an international figure, controversial as he is, but who is by now, known to the entire world, even earning the title of Time’s most influential person, something that his predecessor, former President Benigno Aquino, never was influential, even among Asean nations. But the thing is, despite having gone through the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, and winning some of the Philippine panel’s claim, the territorial issue in the South China Sea was never ruled upon. China’s nine-dash line was declared non-existent although China did build artificial islands in the South China Sea. China has made it clear even before the Philippines brought up the issue formally before the PCA, that China had already stated many times over that it does not, and will not recognize the PCA ruling, which has been shelved in the meantime by Duterte, to gain peace between the Philippines and China and ease tensions in the region. Neither China nor the Philippines owns the entire South China Sea. Sure, we have the Panatag Shoal, which has been inhabited for a long time, with a school to boot, as well as Benham Rise, which even China agrees belongs to the Philippines. The Philippines controls nine islets in the disputed Spratlys region, the largest of which is Pag-asa, an area governed by Palawan’s fifth class town Kalayaan. Other Philippine-occupied islets in the Spratlys are Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panatag Shoal. Still, no president, now and the future, can just sell any island or territory of the Philippines, without first, Congress’ concurrence and of course the Supreme Court, on the constitutionality of a president selling any part of the Philippine territory. Selling a Philippine property in Tokyo, which used to house the Philippine Embassy in Tokyo, failed under previous administrations. It is unlikely that Duterte, during his term of office, will be able to sell any part of the Philippine territory to any foreign country. And Duterte, who often airs his sentiments against the country’s colonizers, whether Spanish or American colonizers, surely knows that Spain sold the country to America for $20 million, which kept Filipino nationalism under American bondage for at least 50 years, even more years, even after the Philippines was granted independence, with conditions spelled out by the American government. Duterte did say that when the country gets rich, perhaps all these islands in the disputed South China Sea can be sold. That in itself can be some kind of guarantee that Duterte, even if he meant what he said, which normally does not literally mean what he says, won’t and can’t sell the islands controlled by the Philippines. He only has six years, with nine months of his term gone and there is doubt that the Philippines can even get that rich or that powerful economically and militarily in that space of time to even try to sell any part of the Philippine territory. Besides, all these decades, the country has been racking up trillions in debts. It is also doubted that after the six-year term of Duterte is over, and a new President or Prime Minister, under a federal system of government, will be a replica of Rodrigo Duterte. Rody is a one of a kind president.