Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte, criticized by the opposition for his perceived soft stand on the West Philippine Sea, invited former Senate President and Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile to share with him and his official family his thoughts on the controversial issue.
With his experience in the executive and legislative branches of the government, Enrile, at 97, 21 years Duterte’s senior, spoke a volume Monday with these major points: Be diplomatic and friendly to China; do not depend on the United States of America; and do not mind your critics.
Duterte, commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces, immediately agreed to adopt the advice.
Duterte had invited Enrile as “one of the best minds of our generation” to share his thoughts on the WPS issue.
We heard Enrile, Justice and Defense Secretary during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, say “Our approach toward China should be friendly, not hard, assertive nor aggressive.”
“If we are in conflict with China, the interest of our people will be on the line. Our economy and security will also be affected,” while raising the caution against depending on Washington for protection in asserting the country’s sovereign rights.
“We cannot depend on our ally even if they are the strongest force on the planet. They have their own problems and interests,” the former Defense chief said, adding “We have to strengthen our own economy and our military.”
It was brain candy for Duterte who agreed on Enrile’s advice on foreign affairs, adding he wanted nothing but friendship from China.
Enrile’s advice during a meeting in Malacanang ran similar to his statement released earlier on Facebook, where he reiterated that a hard and more aggressive stance was not feasible considering the country’s current circumstances.
“We don’t need to be cantankerous on the issue because it significantly affects both the economy and security of our nation,” Enrile told Duterte during the latter’s public address.
Enrile said the country “cannot afford to antagonize China” since it had improved in terms of technology, unlike during the administration of then President Marcos when China’s forces were not yet as strong.
But while several senators agreed that the Philippines should maintain diplomacy with China in dealing with maritime issues, they said other options should not be disregarded in affirming the country’s claims in contested areas.
“That is correct, we should have a friendly, negotiated, diplomatic approach. But we don’t need to be subservient and be in surrender mode,” Senator Francis Pangilinan said in an interview over ABS-CBN News Channel Tuesday.
“It’s one thing to be friendly and diplomatic, it’s another thing to be subservient and deferential,” he added.
Reacting to Enrile’s inputs on the WPS issue, Senator Panfilo Lacson agreed with the former Senate president that the country should “not abandon whatever dealings or negotiations with China are underway or in the pipeline as we speak.”
“Diplomacy should be our first, if not best, option. But neither should we disregard other options available, not only to finally resolve the West Philippine Sea issue but to provide the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region,”said Lacson, chairperson of the Senate national defense committee.
He reiterated his suggestion for the Philippines to build stronger alliances with countries, which have powerful military capabilities and are “willing to help our cause as it would also advance their own national interests if they maintain their presence alongside our naval assets in the vicinity of the WPS.”
“That said, it bears repeating that the initiative should come from a united Filipino people with a united stand – not the continued bickering that only Chinese government will applaud,” Lacson added.
Senate President Pro Tempore Ralph Recto, for his part, also said the Philippines should work with its allies, such as the United States.
“The fact is China has encroached on our EEZ and has built military outposts. It plans to build more. It has destabilized the region and has taken away the livelihood of our fishermen and other natural resources available to Filipinos,” Recto said in a statement.
But Enrile defended the UN arbitral ruling in 2016 that invalidated China’s massive nine-dash-line claim over the entire South China Sea after Duterte belittled it as a mere scrap of paper that deserved to be thrown in the wastebasket.
While agreeing with the President that the arbitral ruling was difficult to enforce, Enrile said it was not a wasted decision.
“That decision has been registered with the UN record. Our right emanates from the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which was crafted by the United Nations,” Enrile said.
As for internal affairs, Enrile advised the President not to scrooch down and be in line with his critics.
“In the first place, you were elected by the Filipino people to be the leader of this country. Nobody else can frame the foreign policy of the country except the President of this country. That is true to us and true to other countries. Not even the Supreme Court can interfere with your foreign policy. That’s the highest political act of a president,” Enrile said.
“No one else can frame or formulate the foreign policy of the Philippines except President Rodrigo Duterte. Not (former Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio) Carpio, not (former Foreign Secretary) Albert Del Rosario or Juan Ponce Enrile. There is only one person — that’s the President of the Philippines,” Enrile added.
We keep our ears and eyes open as the days roll on.