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Reso urging DFA to bring China’s aggression before UNGA sparks debate at Senate

Senators on Wednesday debated extensively on a resolution urging the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to call out China’s aggression in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA).

Senator Risa Hontiveros sponsored Senate Resolution 659, which seeks to exhaust all available diplomatic means to assert the country’s rightful claims over the WPS amid China’s “reckless, unrepentant, and continuous incursion” in the area.

“Now that our country has received a snowballing of support for our lawful claims in the West Philippine Sea, now that we are at an optimal juncture to call on more nations to rally behind our cause, now is the time to push for this course of action,” Hontiveros said in sponsoring her resolution.

She noted the expressions of support—from the European Union, the United States, the United Kingdom, Japan, New Zealand, and Australia—for the country’s 2016 victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which invalidated China's nine-dash line claiming nearly the entirety of the South China Sea.

“A UNGA resolution could bolster the Arbitral Award…A UNGA resolution is in the interest not only of the Philippines but also the entire community of nations; nations that have learned not just the follies but also the limits of force and war, and have sworn never to repeat that bitter lesson,” Hontiveros said.

The resolution was co-sponsored by Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri, Senate defense committee chairman Jinggoy Estrada and Senator Raffy Tulfo.

However, Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, a former Foreign Affairs secretary, argued that the UN might not be the proper forum, saying that China prefers bilateral talks on territorial disputes and that President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. did not mention this course of action as part of the government’s strategy.

“We agree and we are all outraged by the actions of China, but is the UNGA  the right forum for us to get justice? I’m not saying it’s the wrong forum [but] what I’m saying is that under our constitution and jurisprudence, the chief architect [of foreign policy] is the president. It has never been the House or the Senate. So it is the president who will say what is our strategy, where we will go,” Cayetano said in his interpellation.

Hontiveros maintained that the UNGA is one of the right fora to bring up the issue with China’s incursion to gather “diplomatic and political support” of other UN member-countries.

She agreed with Cayetano that the president is the chief architect of foreign policy, and said that the resolution’s intention is to ask the DFA to sponsor a resolution before the UNGA as the alter ego of the president.

Zubiri also clarified to Cayetano that the resolution expresses the sense of the Senate to ask the Executive Department, which was headed by the president, to take action on this issue.

But Cayetano insisted that this strategy might be futile as there is no body that would force China to follow the decision of the entire UN.

“The point of diplomacy, lalo na kung walang world power na mag-e-enforce, is that we have to align a policy with strategy that something can actually get done,” he said.

He bolstered his argument by citing the cases of Vietnam and Malaysia, which he said are resolving their territorial disputes against China through bilateral talks. He said both Southeast Asian nations did not file a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration nor the UNGA.

Cayetano also noted that China is willing to talk to ASEAN to settle disputes in the South China Sea, but that the superpower does not want other nations outside the region to meddle with the negotiations.

“Im not saying it’s a wrong strategy. I’m saying you can look back in history and see the results of the two and im saying that the Senate should tread carefully and get the right information…” he said.

But Zubiri argued that China is not being faithful to its statements.

“Mahirap makipag-usap sa isang bansa na hindi naman matino. If there were goodwill measures to our discussions and negotiations, eh wala po sana tayong problema,” Zubiri said.

“Unfortunately, even in our embassy here, nangyari na sa akin ‘yan—hindi naman nabudol pero I was thrown under the bus when he told me about something about POGO and I shared it about everybody at sabi niya kasinungalingan. ‘Yun pala totoo pala ang sinabi niya and I can prove that with the witnesses that were with me there,” he said, referring to his conversation with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian who reportedly told him that Philippines is on China’s tourism blacklist due to POGOs.

Still, Cayetano argued that the DFA should have the support of the president should it heed the call of the Senate to bring up China’s intrusions in the WPS before the UNGA.

“A diplomat cannot say anything of his personal opinion, only that of the instruction of the chief diplomat. That’s what my point here, the chief diplomat has not stated that he wants this taken up sa UN and yes, we are not a rubber stamp and yes, may sariling pag-iisip ang Senate pero ang konstitusyon mismo ang nagsabi na dapat ang presidente ang may diskarte at jurisprudence ang nagpapatunay non,” he argued.

Cayetano then appealed to his colleagues to tackle the resolution in a committee or conduct briefings with the Chinese ambassador and think tanks from Southeast Asia before adopting the measure.

“I guarantee you, if we simply pass this resolution, tapon lang natin sa UNGA, madi-disappoint tayo because history has proven…that UNGA is for consensus. It is not for highly contentious issues like this. It’s so important that if we don’t get all the information and study it well and maybe help the DFA craft the resolution itself, kung ‘yun ang desisyon natin. Baka maging negative pa sa atin ito later on,” he warned.

“If countries close to China vote against us, they will not implement this, it will make our PCA arbitration ruling even weaker,” he added.

While he clarified that he agrees with his colleagues in terms of condemning China’s intrusions, Cayetano said taking this up with the UNGA is “such a big step.”

“Even if we can do it, should we do it without consulting the Executive Department? Because it might weaken us in front of the international community,” he said.

At the end of the discussion, Cayetano asked the Senate president to tackle the resolution in a caucus on Monday, saying there are some sensitive pieces of information that might be monitored by other claimants.

The caucus is also meant to discuss the “implications of not being in sync with the strategy of the president.”

Zubiri informed the body of an all-member caucus at 1:30 p.m. Monday and asked the Senate secretariat to invite Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, Presidential Adviser to the WPS retired General Andres Centino, the National Intelligence Coordinating Agency, and the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea. — BM, GMA Integrated News