Interview with Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo (ANC 21-Early Edition by Christian Esgeurra)

ESGUERRA: Good morning sir; and thank you for joining us.

SEC. PANELO: Good morning Christian. Thank you for having me.

ESGUERRA: Let’s start with your meeting yesterday with the Chinese Ambassador. Did you raise this issue and what did he say about the presence of Chinese vessels near Pagasa Island?

SEC. PANELO: He said that those were fisherman, not militia and they are investigating it.

ESGUERRA: And what did you tell him?

SEC. PANELO: Well, I told him that according to the Western Command our DFA has already filed a diplomatic protest or note verbale. And I was asking him have you received it. And he said not yet. And I confirmed it with Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin…


SEC. PANELO: …that he is going to file a note verbale.

ESGUERRA: So, we haven’t filed even a note verbale?

SEC. PANELO: No, I think it’s on the way, according to him. I was talking to him last night.

ESGUERRA: But you said yesterday that we already filed a diplomatic protest.

SEC. PANELO: Because that was [what] the Western Command said. Perhaps they were already assured that such will be filed.

ESGUERRA: Now, why not just file a diplomatic protest, why settle with a note verbale?

SEC. PANELO: But actually, I was asking, what’s the difference. It is the same.

ESGUERRA: But it depends on how strong—

SEC. PANELO: I was asking Teddy Boy Locsin.

ESGUERRA: Yeah, but it depends on how strong or weak the protest is, whatever you want to call it.

SEC. PANELO: Regardless, the fact is we are still taking issue on that.

ESGUERRA: But what would you actually—what we tell them in that particular protest?

SEC. PANELO: Well, what are they doing there and why are those fishermen stationary.

ESGUERRA: Now, you said that the Chinese ambassador told you that they were not Chinese militia members, but they are fishermen.

SEC. PANELO: Yes, that’s what they told me.

ESGUERRA: Are you buying it?

SEC. PANELO: We don’t know. Would you know, whether these are militia men or fishermen?

ESGUERRA: Of course there are ways of finding out.

SEC. PANELO: Because according to him, they are fishermen, they are unarmed.

ESGUERRA: But who do you believe more – the Chinese Ambassador’s assurance that they were fishermen, not members of the militia; or information coming from the military who said that they were Chinese—

SEC. PANELO: Of course we will believe what our military says.

ESGUERRA: So you are convinced that they are members of the maritime militia?

SEC. PANELO: If that’s what the military says, yes. Of course the Chinese Ambassador is denying it.

ESGUERRA: But in the first place, is the Philippine government actually alarmed with this report. Because yesterday, we were watching in the press conference it seem that you actually disputing the report in terms of number.

SEC. PANELO: No, only in terms of number.

ESGUERRA: You said it was exaggerated.

SEC. PANELO: Yeah, because it’s not 716. You know, according to the military Western Command, you count the number of bow, because that is the mark of a ship or of a vessel. So, there were only 217.

ESGUERRA: 275, you mentioned 275.


ESGUERRA: But assuming that they are only 275, isn’t that supposed – that number – isn’t that supposed to alarm you, the government?

SEC. PANELO: Of course, that is precisely why the Western Command has told the DFA about it and DFA has done something about it.

ESGUERRA: And based on the information, what exactly was the intention of these vessels, why were they lurking?

SEC. PANELO: No, according to Chinese Ambassador they will investigate. That is what he said.

ESGUERRA: And then what will they do afterward?

SEC. PANELO: I think that should be an issue that should be taken off in a bilateral. According to him there are mechanics in the bilateral meetings between the two countries and that should be taken up.

ESGUERRA: Because there seems to be a situation here where we raised issues supposedly with China, they would say they would investigate, but afterward, nothing exactly happens because that’s part of their bigger strategy in the area.

SEC. PANELO: Well, we have to raise that as an issue and demand an explanation why they are doing it.

ESGUERRA: Did you demand an explanation yesterday?

SEC. PANELO: That’s for Secretary Locsin—no, because the line of the Ambassador, he said, we will investigate.

ESGUERRA: But who called that meeting?

SEC. PANELO: It’s the Ambassador who texted me if he could pay me a visit.

ESGUERRA: What was the objective, why was he call for a meeting?

SEC. PANELO: Well, he told me yesterday that the reason why he went to my office was to express the government’s appreciation of China on our stand on the ICC.

ESGUERRA: That was the objective?

SEC. PANELO: That was his purpose according to him.

ESGUERRA: So, he wanted to thank the Philippine government for… for what?

SEC. PANELO: For our position in filing of the case by the former Secretary of Foreign Affairs Del Rosario and the former Justice Carpio-Morales.

ESGUERRA: And the Philippine position is what?

SEC. PANELO: Our position is that it’s a futile exercise because of lack of jurisdiction. But we told the Chinese government that we have nothing to do with that because that’s a private complaint.

ESGUERRA: It’s not a good thing that the Philippine government would even come up with a stand in that particular private case filed against China. Is that even proper?

SEC. PANELO: No, because you were asked. If you are asked of what your position what will you say, nothing? You have to say something.

We said that it’s their right to file a case because, as I said, they could have been motivated by righteous indignation over what is happening in the South China Sea. But, the government has nothing to do with that.

ESGUERRA: But the fact that the President even had to assure a ranking, a high-ranking communist party leader of China that the Philippine government had nothing to do with that. Did he even have to say it?

SEC. PANELO: But he is stating a fact. There is nothing wrong with stating a fact.

ESGUERRA: Yeah, because it seems that the Philippine government is trying to distance itself from that case for fear that we might antagonize China.

SEC. PANELO: Whether it’s the government or a private individual, I think China will be antagonized in a way because you’re trying to paint their President bad. I mean, that’s your natural reaction.

ESGUERRA: Is that—somehow, is that an expression of concern or fear on the part of the Philippine government, on the part of President Duterte himself that we don’t want to offend you this case was filed by private individuals, I had nothing to do with that.

SEC. PANELO: Well—you must remember Christian that we are on a friendly relations. We are having these trade and bilateral agreements and we are exchanging intelligence information with respect to the fight against terrorism and illegal drugs. So, we are supposed to be friends.

ESGUERRA: But of course—with the way China has been treating Filipino’s or the Philippines as far as the maritime dispute is concerned. Are we being treated as friends… or like friends?

SEC. PANELO: For as long as they are not doing some harm against the fishermen physically, then—while we are alarmed about it and we are concerned about it and we are going to take that as an issue in incoming bilateral meetings and of course tell them that you can’t do this to us if we are friends.

ESGUERRA: To be more concrete about it. A friend doesn’t have to physically harm you to be considered as your enemy. But for example, you are being prevented from doing what you are supposed to do, for example going to a traditional fishing ground, because that is heavily guarded by—

SEC. PANELO: But they are denying that. They are denying that they are shooing away the fishermen.

ESGUERRA: And you believe them?

SEC. PANELO: Well, according to the latest video, there is an incident involving the shooing away of our fishermen and I took that up with him and he said he will investigate.

ESGUERRA: And then?

SEC. PANELO: Until such time, we don’t know whether they will agree to the accusation or not.

ESGUERRA: Okay, himayin natin ha. There are different issues regarding this relationship with China especially in the context of the maritime dispute.

But first, let’s settle this issue. You said that the Chinese Ambassador went to you to thank the Philippine government for its position. So, aside from that case filed by private individuals now against Chinese President Xi Jinping. Let’s talk about the bigger issue, the fact that the complainants were calling attention to the environmental destruction that China has done or has been doing because if its reclamation. Did you even raised that issue with the Chinese Ambassador?

SEC. PANELO: Which one?

ESGUERRA: The fact that the reclaimed islands between 2013-2016?

SEC. PANELO: We didn’t talk about that. I think that’s—the proper venue for that is the bilateral mechanism.

ESGUERRA: Between the Philippines and China.

SEC. PANELO: Yes of course.

ESGUERRA: But is it even working?

SEC. PANELO: I think so.

ESGUERRA: In what way?

SEC. PANELO: They are talking regularly. I think there will be one on April 3rd, that will be the day after tomorrow.

ESGUERRA: Are you going to raise the issue of the presence of Chinese vessels around Pagasa Island?

SEC. PANELO: I’m sure that will be raised there because it has been exposed by the Western Command.

ESGUERRA: So what would you like China to do, aside from just investigating that?

SEC. PANELO: Well they had to stop it, if indeed they have knowledge of these militia men or fishermen staying there and watching us or whatever they are doing there.

ESGUERRA: So, stop in what sense? Do you want China to tell those fishermen, those vessels to leave?

SEC. PANELO: Oh definitely, they shouldn’t be staying there because it raises apprehension on the part of our fishermen.

ESGUERRA: Did you tell this to the Ambassador yesterday?

SEC. PANELO: No, because the position is we will investigate, we don’t know whether that’s true or not yet.

ESGUERRA: What exactly will they investigate?

SEC. PANELO: Whether or not there were fishermen or militia men, whatever you call it, staying there on those days mentioned.

ESGUERRA: But even then, even if they were just fishermen, they are not supposed to be there?

SEC. PANELO: Oh, if they are fishing, they should be there.

ESGUERRA: That’s fine.


ESGUERRA: How do you understand—explain to us the idea of the Chinese maritime militia.

SEC. PANELO: I don’t know even what a militia is.


SEC. PANELO: What is a militia? Militia is an armed man, right? But the Western Command never said about having seen an armed people in that vessel.

ESGUERRA: But is Malacañang even aware of the importance of the maritime militia as part of the Chinese Armed Forces’ strategy especially in terms of sovereignty disputes.

SEC. PANELO: We don’t know the strategy of the Chinese government. What I know is that they are claiming that property as theirs and we are also claiming as ours; that there’s a dispute or a conflict between the two countries.

ESGUERRA: Hindi, but do we have a clear—does Malacañang have a clear idea of the nuances of the Chinese strategy? Because experts say, they talk about the so-called ‘cabbage strategy,’ so different layers of defenses or members of their armed forces in terms of dealing with that maritime dispute. So you have the Chinese maritime militia, you have the Coast Guard and of course, you have the Navy. Are we even aware of that? Because, I think, it would be foolhardy for the Philippine government to just simply believe what the Chinese Ambassador would say that they are fishermen.

SEC. PANELO: I don’t think our military personnel believe that, that is precisely what they were saying that they have been there for… during the first quarter of this year, and there are about 275 of them. So I think they’re concerned.

ESGUERRA: What exactly are you saying yesterday na they’re not exactly circling but they’re stationary?

SEC. PANELO: No, because your reporter said that they were circling the island, when in fact, they were just staying there. And in the rest of the report said that we didn’t mention that in the briefing, and suddenly this reporter was exaggerating things.

ESGUERRA: Baka naman iyong ano, the position of the vessels, given the number of the vessels around the area, actually circled the island?

SEC. PANELO: Hindi, siguro inassume na lang ng reporter dahil nandoon, bakit ka naka-standby nga lang nga naman doon.

ESGUERRA: Hindi, but even then, isn’t that supposed to be alarming?

SEC. PANELO: It’s alarming that is why the Western Command has said so. And that is why the DFA is… either has already made the diplomatic protest or note verbale or it’s on the way.

ESGUERRA: So the note verbale will be filed when, sir?

SEC. PANELO: According to Secretary Locsin, last night he said, it’s on the way. Siguro pinadala na.

ESGUERRA: Now, of course, you discussed the issue in Scarborough Shoal, the one that was caught on video, the fishermen who were interviewed by Neri Colmenares?

SEC. PANELO: Kasama iyon. He said we will investigate that. Because according to him, they have already agreed with former Secretary Alan Cayetano that the fishermen should not be disturbed there – both sides. They want to fish there, they can fish.

ESGUERRA: But is there even a more concrete discussion on what the Chinese government is supposed to do in terms of making sure that that assurance would happen? Because the mere presence of the Chinese vessels there, for example the Coast Guard lurking in the horizon, somehow that sets fear among fishermen from the Philippines.

SEC. PANELO: Siguro we will also put our own Coast Guard there, ‘di ba?


SEC. PANELO: I mean, iyon naman ang trabaho nila eh, bakit naman hindi nila gagawin iyon.

ESGUERRA: So you are going to deploy Philippine Coast Guard vessels there?

SEC. PANELO: If I were to decide, I would do that. But I suppose the military knows what it’s going to do with that.

ESGUERRA: Now, what do you make of this advice coming from BFAR, advice to Filipino fishermen to stay out of Panatag in the meantime?

SEC. PANELO: Siguro they’re concerned about the safety of our fishermen. Kumbaga, iwas-pusoy na muna kayo.

ESGUERRA: So does Malacañang share that advice that Filipino fishermen should stay out of Panatag in the meantime?

SEC. PANELO: Wala namang—we cannot … I mean, me, there is no report of an incident fishermen being harassed there or being shooed away except for that particular video that according to the one who showed it was made in February, which means that’s recent.
That’s why, precisely I asked the Ambassador if he knows about it, and he said, we’ll have to investigate on that. And in fact, he is thankful for me not making statement without first verifying. Parang na-appreciate niya iyon na let’s verify first bago tayo magsalita kasi baka naman hindi totoo. According to him, there had been many media reports previously daw that had been proven to be false.

ESGUERRA: Like what?

SEC. PANELO: He didn’t mention it. Parang previous administration pa iyon.

ESGUERRA: Pero in terms of verifying—of course, you’re supposed to verify with your own people, right, the Philippine government? So what did you find out about the—

SEC. PANELO: The fishermen?

ESGUERRA: The fishermen who were allegedly being harassed.

SEC. PANELO: The problem with that video is there is another video saying or the fishermen saying that they are not being harassed. In other words, may dalawang version. Most likely, both of them are telling the truth. Iyong ibang fishermen na-harass, iyong iba naman hindi.

ESGUERRA: So that proves the point that there are certain fishermen who are being harassed?

SEC. PANELO: Kaya nga, that’s precisely what the Chinese Ambassador is saying that we will investigate it and then do something about it if it’s true.

ESGUERRA: Kasi when you talk about verifying information, it seems that you are verifying information with China?

SEC. PANELO: No. Kasi tayo, we have our own way of verifying it. We can go there and ask the fishermen themselves. Sila naman, eh baka naman bino-bola sila or whatever, eh natural lang iyon. Both governments will be validating facts or circumstances that were thrown to them.

ESGUERRA: Don’t you think the Philippine government or the Duterte administration is being too friendly with China to the detriment the Philippine interest especially in this case, the maritime dispute?

SEC. PANELO: I do not think so because the President’s style is: there is the arbitral ruling and that’s permanent – you can no longer remove that from us. Meanwhile, we need also China for our trade relations, for mutual concerns, especially the security aspect. We need to unite with all countries in fighting terrorism and illegal drug industry.

So habang nandiyan iyong arbitral ruling na hindi naman natin ma-enforce sa ngayon, di baka sa negotiation [ay] makuha natin.

ESGUERRA: But with the way you have been dealing with China, with the actuations and the statements coming from the President, from you also, somehow those actions further render the arbitral victory useless.

SEC. PANELO: Ang problema nga eh, that’s why I’m asking the critics, what do you want us to do? They say, protest. Eh we’re protesting nga eh. Apart from that, what do you want us to do? Wala naman silang masabi kung anong gagawin natin.

ESGUERRA: Hindi, because the impression, Secretary Panelo, is that it seems that whenever something like this happens, parang laging napipilitan ang gobyerno to even come up with a statement that would provide assurance and reassurance to Filipinos. Usually, the impression is that the automatic response from Malacañang, from you, is to side with China.

SEC. PANELO: Hindi naman because as Secretary Alan said, we’ve been making note verbale and diplomatic protest pero hindi natin pina-publish pa iyon. Kumbaga, automatic sa kanila iyon. Kapag mayroong nakita silang mali doon, we call the attention of the Chinese government.

ESGUERRA: That’s fine, of course, that’s part of the strategy of the former DFA Secretary. But of course, people are also looking for concrete action coming from the government in terms of safeguarding Filipino interest in the West Philippine Sea.

SEC. PANELO: But we’re doing that. In fact, kaya nga tayo may mga Coast Guard doon eh. ‘Di ba I mentioned to you one time that even the Vietnamese fishermen, kapag tinataboy sila ng mga Chinese Coast Guard, pumupunta sa mga Pilipino kasi iyong mga Pilipino ay hindi ginagalaw daw ng Chinese Coast Guard – parang iyon ang shield nila.

ESGUERRA: [Laughs] Talaga.

SEC. PANELO: Iyon ang kuwento eh, iyon ang kuwento ng mga military.

ESGUERRA: So they’re being left alone by the Chinese because of the friendly relations between the Philippines and China?

SEC. PANELO: Partly, kung may usap sila eh. Because according to the Ambassador, it was the agreement between the Chinese government and Philippine government as represented by Secretary Alan na hindi gagalawin iyong mga fishermen doon.

In fact, hindi ba, dati nga tinataboy iyan eh. But prior to the visit of the President, nagkaroon ng usapan iyan, negotiation, at pinapabaayan na iyong mga fishermen natin na mag-fish.

ESGUERRA: Pero iyon nga eh, the fact that they are being allowed to fish in areas that they are supposed to fish, that in itself raises a problem. Bakit mo kailangan magpaalam?

SEC. PANELO: Ang problema nga, they are also claiming that’s theirs, ‘di ba.

ESGUERRA: But you mentioned the ruling that that is supposed to be traditional fishing grounds. That’s the point.

SEC. PANELO: Pero ang problema, iyon din ang kini-claim nila na traditional din sa kanila iyon. Meanwhile, that’s why the President, maganda iyong taktika niya: Hindi na natin pagpipilitan ito kasi hindi natin kayang ipatupad itong arbitral ruling, pero mag-usap tayo.

ESGUERRA: But that should tell you something, that you have the arbitral victory which says that that is a traditional fishing grounds. China, if they want to fish, they can fish there; Filipinos can fish there; Vietnamese they can also fish there. No one should be prevented. But what the Chinese are doing is that they control it. So that is the problem.

SEC. PANELO: Alam mo, sa totoo lang, hindi ba I mentioned to you in one of your shows na ang naging problema kasi diyan, at the exception ay wala nang ginawa iyong previous administration. Alam na nilang nag-uumpisa doon, hindi naman nila hininto. Hindi naman sila … they didn’t assert our sovereignty at that time. Pinabayaan nilang lumaki nang lumaki iyong mga structures doon tapos isisisi nila sa gobyerno. Sasabihin nila, eh nag-file naman kami. Nag-file nga kayo, pero sana hindi na kayo nag-file kung nahinto ninyo from the very beginning. Iyon ang punto doon.

ESGUERRA: But of course, that is a matter of strategy. And of course, andoon na iyong structures ‘di ba. Pero it’s on record that we won the arbitral victory.

SEC. PANELO: Correct. But that should have not happened if you stopped at the initial pa lang, stage.

ESGUERRA: But aren’t we making things worse now with the way we’ve been handling this?

SEC. PANELO: I don’t think so, eh kasi nandiyan na nga iyan, na hindi naman natin ma-enforce kaya idinadaan na lang natin muna sa diplomatic negotiations.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Finally, Secretary Panelo, let’s respond to this concern that, of course, this is a strategy of the Duterte administration, officials like you have been defending the Philippine President’s position in terms of dealing with China, the loans, the maritime dispute. How do you respond to concerns that you guys won’t be here after a generation or two? It’s the next generation that would suffer from the errors in terms of strategy that you are doing now.

SEC. PANELO: That assuming na may errors.

ESGUERRA: Iyon nga.

SEC. PANELO: Iyon ang sinasabi ng mga kritiko – errors. As far as the President is concerned, tama iyong ginagawa niya and I agree with him.

ESGUERRA: Okay. Secretary Panelo, thank you very much for joining us this morning. Thank you.

SEC. PANELO: Thank you.


Source: PCOO-NIB (News and Information Bureau-Data Processing Center)