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Analysts thumb down planned debate on China sea dispute

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

POLITICAL analysts on Sunday frowned upon a planned debate between the palace spokesman and an opposition leader on the South China Sea dispute, saying nothing good would come out of it.

“Such a high-profile debate at this point in President Rodrigo Duterte’s term means they are conceding that his appeasement policy has failed,” said Henry Ll. Yusingco, a lawyer and senior research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center.

The debate would only show that the government is on the defensive and does not assure people that “the President can steer us to the right path moving forward,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat.

Mr. Duterte earlier challenged retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio T. Carpio to a debate on the South China Sea dispute but later backed out of it on the advice of his Cabinet.

His spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. later said he would represent Mr. Duterte in the debate.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro M. Locsin, Jr. earlier cussed at China for the continued presence of its ships in the disputed waterway. Defense Chief Delfin N. Lorenzana had also asked Beijing to stop conducting activities that would disturb “regional and international peace and security.”

But Mr. Duterte said the both countries could settle the dispute peacefully. He has repeatedly said China is crucial to his government’s infrastructure, trade and investment plans.

“Had the debate pushed through, this fundamental disagreement in the Cabinet would have been highlighted even further which would have subjected the President to even more embarrassment,” Mr. Yusingco said.

“There is clearly no unanimity of views within the Duterte Cabinet itself and the President looks incapable, or unwilling, to lead his team to finding the proper consensus,” he added.

Mr. Duterte had called the arbitral ruling that rejected China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea a piece of paper that could be disposed of. He said he tried to pursue the 2016 victory but nothing happened.

“A debate exposes the weakness of the position claimed by China and the issues that come out of the statements made by President Duterte that compromised our position in the West Philippine Sea,” Herman Joseph S. Kraft, head of the University of the Philippines Political Science department, said in a Viber message, referring to areas of the sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“The problem is not the absence of a voice opposing China’s action in the West Philippine Sea. It is the fact that it is the President saying these things that undermine our position,” he added.

“In a debate, the President or his representative will merely be reiterating these problematic claims.”

The administration’s China policy should become an election issue, Mr. Yusingco said.

“Our political class should be taken to task about this very serious policy matter. We must only vote for leaders who can lead us to the right path. At least we know now that the appeasement policy won’t bring us there,” he said.

Mr. Yusingco said the President’s appeasement policy must be set aside and replaced with a national coastal management policy.

“A crucial component of this policy framework must be a comprehensive fisheries strategy.” he said. “Obviously, input from fisherfolks here is vital.”

Local marine scientists earlier said as much as a fifth of annual global marine fish catch worth at least $21.8 billion comes from the South China Sea, which provides employment to about 1.8 million people, mostly from the small-scale fishing sector.

Mr. Carpio has questioned Mr. Duterte’s alleged failure to lobby for the enforcement of the 2016 Hague ruling.

The United Nations tribunal in July 2016 ruled China’s efforts to assert control over the South China Sea exceeded the law, rejecting its shared claims with Taiwan to more than 80% of the main waterway.

China rejected the decision of the international court, which has failed to halt its island-building activities in areas also claimed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and Taiwan.

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