By Marichu A. Villanueva
The Philippine Star
The government of President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III has “put on hold” current undertaking to conduct a seismic survey around the Reed Bank near the Kalayaan Islands Group, located in the highly disputed areas of South China Sea, or Spratlys for brevity’s sake.
Energy Secretary Jose Rene Almendras was quoted saying the seismic exploration activities have been temporarily suspended pending resolution of some issues, in particular, the territorial dispute of the areas around South China Sea claimed by our country, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.
The Reed Bank basin is about 71,000 square kilometers in area and located about 250 kms west of Palawan. Therefore, the Reed Bank area is not part of the disputed territories in the Spratlys because it is within the territorial boundaries of the Philippines. The DOE earlier estimated total resources in the basin at 440 million barrels of oil that the seismic survey was precisely trying to determine when allegedly “harassed” by the Chinese navy boats.
As far as the DOE is concerned, Almendras cited, this project would not move on “without the go signal” from the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA). Without further elaborating, the DOE chief passed the buck to DFA Secretary Alberto del Rosario as the best person in authority to talk about this matter.
Much earlier, both the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have refrained from further commenting on the alleged “harassment” incident last March 2.
This came after the DFA formally lodged a diplomatic protest on the incident it transmitted through the Chinese Embassy in Manila. In response, the Chinese government justified the operation of their navy gunboat as part of their normal and regular patrol operations around Nansha as they call their own claimed areas in Spratlys.
The Philippines has previously filed a protest with the United Nations (UN) against China’s so-called nine-dotted map which included our own Kalayaan Island Group as part of their territory.
After making brave statements in public about their being ready, willing, and able to defend the country’s territorial waters from foreign aggressors, the AFP subsequently toned down their official pronouncements. The AFP has deferred to the DFA as the proper government agency to issue or make any official comments on the matter.
This seems to be the official line now of the government — and this ought to be — on this highly explosive issue that involves our country’s national security. Government officials concerned on these incidents that have foreign policy implications could not speak out beyond their competence and jurisdiction.
Coming here for an official visit, the Defense Minister of China Liang Guanglie met with President Aquino and assuaged him on Beijing’s policy to adhere to the Code of Conduct to keep the fragile peace in the disputed areas.
Claimant countries of Spratlys that include the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia which are also members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) support this arrangement with China.
The visit of the Chinese official came on the heels of the latest reported sighting of intrusion of Chinese fighter jets over Spratlys in Philippine air space and latest reports that China is building up a new military garrison in one of the disputed islands. But P-Noy sought to downplay these reports with extreme caution.
Prudence dictates that matters that have national security implications should be handled at the highest levels of government decision-makers. This is why the President must be in close and constant consultation with his Cabinet officials to speak with one voice, especially on matters involving our national sovereignty.
To do this, naturally it requires personal attendance of the President in sit-down meetings with his Cabinet officials and key advisers. P-Noy subscribes to a management style of conducting sit-down meetings with the Cabinet clustered in groups to take up a focused discussion.
To this end, President Aquino has opted to activate the Cabinet Cluster system to help him run better the affairs of the State. In an official statement released by the Palace, Executive Secretary Paquito “Jojo” Ochoa Jr. announced the issuance of Executive Order (EO) No. 43 signed by the President last May 13.
In the new setup, the five Cabinet clusters are grouped into the Good Governance and Anti-Corruption Cluster headed by no less than the President himself; the Human Development and Poverty Reduction Cluster; the Economic Development Cluster; the Security, Justice and Peace Cluster; and, the Climate Change Adaptation and Mitigation Cluster.
Under EO 43, the Executive Secretary, as the so-called “little President,” chairs the Security, Justice and Peace Cluster with the National Security Council serving as secretariat. Its members include Interior and Local Government Secretary Jesse Robredo who has direct supervision over the police; the DFA Secretary; the DND headed by Secretary Voltaire Gazmin; Justice Secretary Leila de Lima; and the presidential adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Teresita Deles.
Obviously, the most pressing concern is with the Cabinet cluster on national security that P-Noy convened at the Palace following these latest developments in the disputed territory.
Admittedly, our country has no military might to match a superpower like China to assert Philippine territorial claims over Spratlys. It reminded me of a popular adage, “all bark, no bite.” It means a harmless nagging or bitching. That’s all that we can do in this case.
But with our Commander-in-chief now hands on in dealing with this national security issue and is the one barking the orders, there will be no need to bite, so to speak, if only to get the most proper action. Undoubtedly, P-Noy’s on board trip last week to the American carrier USS Carl Vinson, anchored off international waters in South China Sea, made such a howling yet unspoken statement that reached all the way to Beijing.