ESGUERRA: Joining us today is Secretary Salvador Panelo, the Presidential Spokesman and Chief Legal Counsel. Good morning sir and thank you for joining us.
SEC. PANELO: Good morning, Christian. Thank you for having me.
ESGUERRA: Okay. First issue, this was a fresh petition filed before the Supreme Court seeking to compel members of the Cabinet and other government officials to at least enforce the law to make sure that the environment is protected in those areas that we’ve mentioned. Your response to this.
SEC. PANELO: Well, the Coast Guards are there and then we have made diplomatic protest. So I think we’re doing our job.
ESGUERRA: So, you don’t need to make this particular writ available for them?
SEC. PANELO: What do they mean by—
ESGUERRA: This continuing mandamus for example to compel the government to implement environmental laws.
SEC. PANELO: But, we are precisely implementing that. By putting Coast Guards there, you protect the environment. But the problem there is precisely there is a conflict in the disputed area and if you do something drastic as in armed enforcement it might provoke an armed conflict that might be too costly for us.
ESGUERRA: But aren’t there supposedly other options on the part of the Philippine government? Because you don’t need to wage war or trigger conflict by simply enforcing your laws in areas that are clearly within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
SEC. PANELO: Now, there’s no problem about the area where it is ours and no foreign country is trying to intrude. But the problem is if it goes beyond that where there are conflicting claim over the area.
ESGUERRA: But we are talking—
SEC. PANELO: You must remember that we have already filed a diplomatic protest and I think that’s the best we do as of now.
ESGUERRA: That’s enough?
SEC. PANELO: Well, that’s a start. Because if you file a diplomatic protest and the country subject of the protest would be talking to you then there will be an agreement between the two countries relative to your complaint.
ESGUERRA: But here, before I go to the diplomatic protest filed by the Philippine government is Scarborough Shoal. What exactly are we doing to prevent this environmental damage being caused by the Chinese there?
SEC. PANELO: The only way you can do that is to have coast guards there so that you can watch over the property, avoid or prevent people from doing damage to the corals.
ESGUERRA: But clearly it’s not—the objective of the Philippine, through the Coast Guard, is not being achieved because based on the latest reports – also from ABS CBN – there was evidence of the Chinese harvesting giant clams in an area they’re not supposed to do that.
SEC. PANELO: That is why precisely we filed that protest. Perhaps if they will not respond to that affirmatively then we have to do something more aggressive which may provoke as I said armed hostilities.
ESGUERRA: Like what? What exactly are we talking about here?
SEC. PANELO: If we try to use armed action against those people, they might retaliate.
ESGUERRA: But even without—
SEC. PANELO: So I think the best is still negotiations. We can still talk this over. We can tell them ‘stop doing that.’
ESGUERRA: And if they don’t?
SEC. PANELO: Otherwise, we will be forced at the risk of an armed conflict, even if minimal.
ESGUERRA: But is that something that the Philippine government is ready and exploring to do within the immediate future or are there other steps, diplomatically, that can be done in between? Because no one wants likes a conflict here; no one likes war.
SEC. PANELO: Again I will repeat: the best way is still negotiation. Negotiation is the best avenue by which we can solve any conflict in any area the South China Sea.
ESGUERRA: Now, how is Malacañang somehow taking this petition for a writ of kalikasan and continuing mandamus on the part of the government? Because the basic perception is that you need to compel your own government because it seems to be dragging its feet when it comes to protecting the environment at least and the livelihood of Filipino fishermen in those areas that clearly are within the EEZ of the Philippines.
SEC. PANELO: Well, the petitioners must consider that there are serious considerations that must be taken up and talked off. You just don’t do drastic things; you have to do it cautiously. And negotiation is still the best.
ESGUERRA: In the case of Scarborough Shoal—you’ve seen the video, right? The harvesting of the giant clams, so President Duterte saw it also?
SEC. PANELO: I suppose.
ESGUERRA: So how do you see that particular evidence, given the fact that you have been dealing with China in good faith, basically treating them as friends, yet right under our nose they have been doing these?
SEC. PANELO: We have already made our stand and we will wait for the response of China.
ESGUERRA: When was the diplomatic protest filed?
SEC. PANELO: I didn’t ask Secretary Locsin, but he said he did.
ESGUERRA: How about the diplomatic protest that was filed in connection with the presence of Chinese vessels around Pagasa?
SEC. PANELO: He also did that.
ESGUERRA: But was there already a response from the Chinese government?
SEC. PANELO: None that I know of as of this time.
ESGUERRA: Now, how exactly do you intend to address that particular issue? Because we have a bilateral mechanism with China, but the vessels are still there.
SEC. PANELO: Well, we have already raised the issue to them, and it is for them to respond.
ESGUERRA: So what’s the next step on the part of the Philippine government?
SEC. PANELO: Let’s see how they will react to our protest
ESGUERRA: If they stay, what’s the next step?
SEC. PANELO: Then we will wait for the decision of the President, the next best thing to do.
ESGUERRA: And also, there’s been noticeable change in tone on the part of the President, on your part, on the part of the Department of Foreign Affairs when it comes to dealing with China’s behavior in the South China Sea.
SEC. PANELO: Not really. Let me clarify that. We never changed tone. We said that our responses are studied or calibrated, depends on the situation. We just don’t make reckless statements the moment we hear about a report that certain person or group of person do these things in that area. We have to validate that first, that’s why we were very cautious in making statements. Now, when we validated that, then we make very strong statement.
ESGUERRA: But you have been very cautious for the past … close to three years. Why only now?
SEC. PANELO: What do you mean—of course not!
ESGUERRA: You’ve been very, very cautious.
SEC. PANELO: Because you must remember—
ESGUERRA: Very, very guarded, understandably.
SEC. PANELO: No, you must remember that prior to that, the fishermen were being shooed away, right? But there were talks between the two governments, and they did allow our fishermen not to be prevented from fishing. So there was no incident at that time.
ESGUERRA: But even then, that basic proposition, “to allow Filipino fishermen to fish in a traditional fishing ground” – at least also based on the Hague ruling – that in itself was problematic eh.
SEC. PANELO: Yes, I know that. But, Christian, you must remember that, I’ve been saying this and we’ve been saying this that China maintains that it owns the entire South China Sea. Hence, they will be logically performing acts of ownership and sovereignty, and we’re saying, “No, it’s ours.” So there is that conflict now.
ESGUERRA: Hindi, but my original question is: What changed as far as Malacañang was concerned? How come you’re sounding more resolute now, tougher in your language in dealing with China?
SEC. PANELO: Because the reports had been validated that there were vessels there. And according to the military, these are militia men. Hence, that’s something to be concerned of.
ESGUERRA: But overall, why did it take Malacañang that long to actually realize that the Chinese had been doing this, not just that specific presence of Chinese vessels around Pag-asa?
SEC. PANELO: No, I beg to disagree. There was no serious incident that called our attention – only recently. Do you remember of any incident? I don’t think so.
ESGUERRA: The harvesting of the giant clams, Philippine government had no idea prior to the television report that came out?
SEC. PANELO: As far as I know. The Coast Guard has only validated that recently.
ESGUERRA: So wasn’t that a responsibility—wasn’t the Coast Guard remiss in its responsibilities in that particular respect, when in fact they should have been, at least, an agency of government should have been monitoring that?
SEC. PANELO: Well, you must remember that this is a vast ocean; you cannot just guard them 24 hours a day if you have only one or two. There might be a time when you’re there but they’re not there. When you leave the area, that’s the time they go on fishing or whatever that they do.
ESGUERRA: Which brings me to my original point, you said that no need to basically compel the Philippine government to enforce the law because the Coast Guard is there. The question is: Is the presence of the Coast Guard effective? Or the things that the Philippine government has been doing, are they enough to prevent those things from happening because in essence or in reality they’re not being effective.
SEC. PANELO: Maybe, perhaps, there is a need for an increased number of Coast Guards in that area. And the next question is: Do we have that many numbers? So if we don’t have that numbers, then we must purchase, maybe, vessels.
ESGUERRA: Now, do you think there was … can you still make a difference when it comes to citing the Hague ruling, the landmark victory by the Philippines?
SEC. PANELO: What do you mean?
ESGUERRA: Because you’ve been talking more … you’ve been mentioning more frequently, lately, the arbitral victory. Before, the President said, it would have to be set aside in the meantime because you wanted to negotiate with China. And also, at the first instance that we won that case, the President said he wanted a soft landing.
Now, looking back, do you think that was a good move on the part of the Philippine government considering what China did afterwards?
SEC. PANELO: I think so, because you must remember that every time the President says I will not invoke this for now, he is in fact invoking it. Because by mentioning that, there is the message to the Chinese government that ‘we have not forgotten this, excuse us.’
ESGUERRA: But he was not invoking—
SEC. PANELO: Even then. But effectively, he is already telling them that this arbitral ruling has the stamp of permanence; it’s irreversible; nobody can take that away from us. That’s what he is telling the Chinese government. But meanwhile, since we cannot enforce it by force, since we are not capable of doing that, let’s be friends first and then let’s discuss if we can enforce this through negotiation.
ESGUERRA: So where are you, when President Duterte now talking about the arbitral ruling now?
SEC. PANELO: We have not stopped talking about it. When you say we will not invoke this, you already talking about it. You’re making them realize that we have not forgotten it. Otherwise, hindi mo na sana binabanggit iyon. By just saying that, “O we will not invoke this arbitral ruling,” di sinasabi mo rin sa kanila na may arbitral ruling kami.
ESGUERRA: Hindi, of course, that’s how you see it. But there’s so much meaning when it comes to the way words or messages are relayed especially by public officials like yourself. So in this case, people are seeing a stronger or a tougher stance on the part of the Philippine government. What I’m asking is: what changed? What did you realize at this stage in our negotiation with China?
SEC. PANELO: Hindi. Alam mo kasi, kung mababaw ang tingin mo … kailangan iyong medyo malalim eh. Kapag mini-mention mo iyong arbitral ruling kahit sinasabi mong “I will not invoke the arbitral ruling,” you’re effectively telling them, “Mayroon kaming arbitral ruling, baka nakakalimutan ninyo.”
ESGUERRA: Yeah, precisely.
SEC. PANELO: You have not changed your stance.
ESGUERRA: But there’s a difference between the present tense and the future tense.
SEC. PANELO: Even then.
ESGUERRA: Hindi ninyo ba pinag-uusapan iyon?
SEC. PANELO: Hindi, present tense nga iyong sinasabi mong, “We will not invoke the arbitral ruling now, let’s talk muna”; baka makuha namin iyong gusto namin sa arbitral ruling.
ESGUERRA: So, what did you realize between the time when you decided not to … to at least set it aside first and proceed with negotiation. What did you realize between that time and now?
SEC. PANELO: I think the realization is: how do you enforce an arbitral ruling from an international tribunal that does not have mechanism of enforcement? It does not have a force to reckon with and then we have powerful countries who appear not to be persuaded to enforce it. And we are—
ESGUERRA: What do you mean?
SEC. PANELO: Well, like America is there, they could have stopped China from the inception but they did not.
ESGUERRA: But I think the strategy before was to put international pressure on China behind the Philippines which won this landmark victory before the permanent court of arbitration.
SEC. PANELO: Pressure on China? What kind of pressure did they—
ESGUERRA: Basically, you try to take as many friends as possible to respect the rule of law, to respect the ruling even if there’s no enforcement mechanism, technically, but you gather your friends, the international community, behind that victory to put pressure on China to respect the law.
SEC. PANELO: But I think the arbitral ruling has received the acceptance of most of the countries of the world. But apparently, not anyone of them has made any movement to help us.
ESGUERRA: Was it that also because that the Philippine government itself didn’t sound resolute at that time to push that particular victory?
SEC. PANELO: I think they know the reality. The realities on the ground are different from perception.
ESGUERRA: Now, in terms of realization, was there also a realization on the part of the Philippine government that, “Hey, over this past few years, despite our negotiations and goodwill with China, you supposedly were treating us as friends but in effect, in reality, you’re treating us for fools because of what you have been doing in our territory.”
SEC. PANELO: No. I think the diplomatic… the salvo of diplomatic protests filed by the Secretary of Foreign Affairs is enough to put them on notice that we will not allow any intrusion to our sovereignty in our territory.
ESGUERRA: Now, before the perception was we had to engage China in other areas of friendship, the economy in particular. And of course, there are also some controversies regarding that particular side of the engagement. But in this case, how do you now differentiate or somehow isolate this maritime dispute, this territorial dispute with China so as not to affect our other areas of engagement with China?
SEC. PANELO: I think both matters are of mutual concern with the two countries, and they will be dealing with it cautiously to the mutual satisfaction of both. Ganyan talaga ang diplomasya, kailangan dahan-dahan ka; naglalaro kayo pareho eh.
ESGUERRA: But this is what a lot of analysts had been saying all along, we don’t have to focus only on one side of the engagement, perhaps, forget the other side, because we can always follow, for example, the template of Vietnam – very aggressive in pushing for its sovereignty, its position in the dispute with China.
SEC. PANELO: How, how aggressive are they? In what way?
ESGUERRA: They have been very, very vocal about it at the very least. Of course, in the past, there had been physical clashes with China. But the point is, they’re also engaging China economically, diplomatically but they’re not exactly forgetting or shelving their dispute with China when it comes to territory.
SEC. PANELO: Alam mo, Christian, stages iyan eh. Kung hindi mo makuha sa santong dasalan, oh di sa santong paspasan naman. Ganyan talaga, kailangan calibrated ang mga responses mo. Tingnan muna natin. But the position is very clear, our principled stand is: ‘This is ours’ – that particular area of conflict – ‘and we will not allow any intrusion into that.’
ESGUERRA: Looking back, since the Duterte administration started engaging with China, do you think China has been a true friend to the Philippines?
SEC. PANELO: Well, they have been helping us. As I mentioned in one program of yours, they helped us in the Marawi battle, and then they have these rehabilitation centers and then they’re helping us on this Build, Build, Build Projects.
SEC. PANELO: But they’re also invoking their presence in the conflicted area because they’re saying, “This is ours,” and we’re saying, “No, that’s ours.” Iyon nga ang problema eh, siyempre… if you were China, what will you do? Siyempre ayaw mo rin, kasi nga you’re claiming ownership.
ESGUERRA: But do you think it’s worth it, on the part of the Philippines?
SEC. PANELO: That what?
ESGUERRA: The fact that China had been helping us in other areas, but when it comes to the territorial dispute, they have been doing this for so long.
SEC. PANELO: Well, we are appreciative of what they’ve done. But again, we will repeat, we will remain steadfast with our sovereignty over the area of conflict.
ESGUERRA: Do you think this position of the government would still be convincing as far as China is concerned, given the fact that we’ve been very, very friendly and then all of a sudden, you talk this way?
SEC. PANELO: Definitely.
ESGUERRA: Convincing pa ba iyan?
SEC. PANELO: You must remember that they made a response and I also made a response and Secretary Locsin and the President. There have been exchanges.
ESGUERRA: Finally, let’s go to the other aspect. Let’s leave that for a moment – very complicated issue with China. The national budget—
SEC. PANELO: Hindi na namatay nga iyong isyung iyan eh.
ESGUERRA: The national budget, President Duterte decided to sign it.
SEC. PANELO: Yes.
ESGUERRA: Why veto that huge amount? And some people say, perhaps that’s a victory on the part of the senators because part of the veto covered the piece of advice given by … or the appeal given by the Senate President?
SEC. PANELO: Not really. You must remember that this President is a lawyer; he is trained in law. He knows his Constitution. So those—
ESGUERRA: But does he know the budget?
SEC. PANELO: Yes, of course. Those particular provision on the unprogrammed appropriations is classified as a rider, and therefore violative of the Constitution. So he vetoed that. Not because that’s the Senate stand. All the inputs are of course received but he will study since he will be the one to sign it or veto it.
ESGUERRA: But finally, did he really come close to vetoing the entire budget as he had threatened?
SEC. PANELO: Depende kasi iyan eh. That’s why he said—babasahin—kaya kita mo, ang daming ano eh … if you have noticed, maraming—
ESGUERRA: Veto message.
SEC. PANELO: No, the veto message is long simply because marami siyang vineto tapos marami pa siyang conditional. So talagang pinag-aralan nang husto.
ESGUERRA: Okay. Secretary Salvador Panelo, thank you very much for joining us again.
SEC. PANELO: Thank you for having me.
Source: PCOO-NIB (News and Information Bureau-Data Processing Center)