PRESIDENTIAL Spokesperson Harry Roque recently attempted to be creative in countering criticisms on the government’s wimpish policy re: our territorial dispute with China in the West Philippine Sea. He brought to a press briefing with Malacañang reporters three fishermen who complained about the Chinese coast guard taking their catch in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Reporters, though, were not able to interview freely Romel Cejuela, Delfin Egana and Jurry Drio because of Roque’s constant intervention. It was obvious Roque only wanted the fishermen to blurt out the line that he wanted them to follow: that they were only allowed to fish in the shoal under the Duterte administration, which has been trying to be friendly with China.
In the process, Roque looked laughable. When the reporters began asking probing questions, like whether or not they felt that China and not the Philippines owned the shoal, he abruptly ended the press briefing. The Chinese would later say that, indeed, they now allow Filipino fishermen to fish in the shoal—but only out of their goodwill and not because the Philippines own Panatag shoal.
I won’t actually begrudge Roque for doing what he did—and for the apparent turnaround in his principles overall. He is the presidential spokesperson now and he is merely trying to be good in his job. If I were in his shoes I would do the same. If I want to make the Duterte administration look bad, I can only do that if I resign from that job and then go back to being a human rights lawyer.
I already pointed this out before. The Duterte administration’s handling—or mishandling--of the South China Sea row could either strengthen the people’s belief in it or further erode its credibility in the people’s eyes. China is not about to give up its claim to the Spratlys just because the Duterte administration is trying to be friendly with it. China has made that abundantly clear already.
It is now up to the country’s leadership to respond to the China position. Either we totally give up our claim to the Spratlys in the face of China’s military might or we insist on that claim and find non-military ways to assert it. The issue is not only whether Filipino fishermen are able to fish inside the disputed territories or not. That’s a shortsighted and wimpish goal.
But Roque’s press briefing did try to make us believe that is our only and final goal. You hear him say that at least the fishermen were allowed to fish in Panatag shoal unlike when Noynoy Aquino was president. As for the taking of the catch of the fishermen, you hear Roque say that at least the Chinese gave them noodles and water in return. And, yes, the Chinese is investigating the matter, he says.
What Roque and the government should realize is that a growing number of Filipinos are critical of the continued refusal by the Duterte administration to insist on our territorial claim and to protest Chinese actions in the West Philippine Sea. President Duterte’s campaign promise to ride a jetski and carry the Philippine flag in the disputed territory has already become a joke.
And one that pains a growing number of Filipinos every time they laugh at it.