Viet Nam News
by Thu Van
MANILA – Other countries should put themselves in Filipino shoes while considering the nation’s foreign policy twists and turns, says Alan Cayetano, Foreign Secretary of the Philippines.
He was responding to a media query about the nation’s perceived about-face after getting a favourable ruling from an arbitration court last year in the South China Sea (East Sea in Viet Nam) dispute with China.
Cayetano met with journalists gathered for the ASEAN Media Forum last Friday in Manila, an event on the sidelines of the ASEAN Ministers’ Meeting and other related events being held from August 2 to 8 in the Philippines.
Cayetano said that as a member of the national security council that decided to launch the arbitration case against China, he was privy to the formulation of former and current strategies.
“In both strategies, the objectives were to stop China, stop the Philippines and stop other claimants from building more features (in the contested South China Sea), and stop before it became an armed race with militarisation,” he said.
But the first strategy - going hard on China and confronting it would only cause distrust and instability in the region. While the arbitration court’s ruling that was in favour of the Philippines, it “was nothing like in local courts.”
“In the local court, you have a sheriff, you have the police, you have enforcement measures. That’s not the case in the West Philippines South China Sea,” he said.
Instead, the country adopted its latest strategy - talking bilaterally with China, while not forgetting the arbitration award.
“Last year, what the President did was saying that here’s the arbitration award, I’m going to keep it, there will be a time when I take it out. But it will be between China and the Philippines. And in the meantime we’ll talk bilaterally.”
Cayetano said the strategy had actually proved beneficial - Filipino fishermen were now free to fish in their traditional water areas.
"We believe the Duterte strategy, without judging past strategies, is working not just bilaterally for China and the Philippines, but for the whole region.”
Talking about outside powers and superpowers who have interest in the region, Cayetano said the Philippines shared some interests as the ASEAN member, some as the Filipino, and there were some areas that it would differ.
There are four features outside the 200 nautical miles that’s recognised. The Philippines claims these four features, China claims some features, the US does not claim any but claims that it’s international and does not belong to the Philippines.
Thus, from the Filipino point of view, there was not much difference between China and the US.
“"Put yourself in Filipino shoes. Does it make a difference that you aren’t claiming this for yourself but for international waters? The point is, you are not recognising our claims. So, it is normal that Filipinos have to find a foreign policy that forwards our national interests. Our national interests are served if there is peace and stability in the West Philippine Sea-South China Sea."
The Foreign Secretar stressed that Duterte’s independent foreign policy doesn't pitch the country against the US.
“Don’t get me wrong. Our alliance with the US is very strong. We don’t hold it against them that our interests are not identical. We think it’s wise of the US for their sake not to get involved, to not recognise Viet Nam or the Philippines claims since they are all friends of the US,” he said.
Code of Conduct on South China Sea
Regarding the framework for the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (called East Sea by Viet Nam) drafted by ASEAN members and China in May, Cayetano said that as the ASEAN Chair, the Philippines “of course” wanted a joint communique on it. But whether the wording of the document was weak or strong depended on one’s point of view.
“We do not make statements for the sake of making a statement, we do not make a joint communique so that we can say ‘oh we did that together.’ The wording must reflect what is on the ground,” he said.
As ASEAN chair, the biggest challenge for the Philippines was to come up with language for the communique that will be acceptable to all.
“Each country has its advocacy and its passionate, strong feelings about certain words and content, but again the challenge for the whole is really to balance all of this. So what will it do if it has strong language but then on the ground we will regress?”
Cayetano said there were more of areas or facets of the South China Sea that ASEAN may discuss without discussing the territorial claims.
“Why can’t all the claimants talk about protecting marine sources and protecting the environment, and doing more? Much is said about what’s under the water and how much oil resources or gas or other natural resources there are, but have we done all the studies possible including joint exploration?” he said.
Not alcohol or cigarettes
Cateyano also explained his country’s controversial drugs policy that has been criticized for human rights violations.
"We want to discuss this and we want a common stand on drugs in the context of protecting our community, our children, the public. It’s not like alcohol or cigarettes,” he said.
“Illegal drugs are related to organised crimes, which are many times related to terrorism or insurgencies in different countries. The manufacture and sales of drugs and headquarters of drugs can easily be found in the areas of rebels or extremists because it hides behind the violent extremism.”
The Foreign Secretary said he thinks the bigger question is the human rights aspect, but added that there was a context particular to the Philippines.
“In the Philippines we have 16 to 17 million families, one fifth of whom has a member who is drug addict, and unlike in Western country where you don’t stay with your family when you’re 18, in Asian countries, if you have a drug addict in your home, poverty strikes the family. If he steals what do you do with him? You can not put him in jail because he’s not a criminal, he’s also a victim. If you don’t stop him it only gets worse and worse,” he said.
Cayetano defended Duterte’s tough ways of dealing with drug addicts.
“No one has a perfect answer but in the Philippines we do not give up. We can’t say let’s just legalise it to make it better or to have a better situation,”
“In my talk to some Western countries, I said: You invented that system to deal with drugs and now we’re dealing with drugs and you put human rights to our face. But it’s really up to you because we need you more now. But 20 years from now as ASEAN grows and Asia grows, you’ll need us more than we need you,” he said.
Finally, he said his President is actually a “peacemaker”.
"To many Filipinos he is the epitome of a father who is very protective of his children.” —VNS