MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - President Duterte let loose a bombshell claim last week: that the United States was "slowly converting Subic" back into a military base.
Oddly, despite the explosive nature of the allegation, the President's remarks were scant on details or explanation and had more the air of a "by the way" - an afterthought tacked into the larger harangue he was directing at two figures, vice-president Leni Robredo and Senator Panfilo Lacson.
The two had become the objects of the President's latest late-night outburst when they separately protested Mr. Duterte's earlier demand that the United States pay up if it wanted the Visiting Forces Agreement to remain between the Philippines and the United States.
That ultimatum had left not only Robredo and Lacson cringing - "There is a more civil and statesmanlike manner to ask for compensation from a longtime ally using the diplomatic channels and still get the desired results,'' Lacson pointed out - but also many others.
Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario said it was "incomprehensible that when partners help each other against a common enemy, one party is asking his partner to pay,'' while Jose Cuisia Jr., former Philippine ambassador to the United States, warned that the Philippines would be at the losing end of this matter, with strained relations between Manila and Washington arising from Mr. Duterte's reflex anti-US hostility only emboldening China to continue its "aggressive expansion'' in the South China Sea.
Was it even true - the President's charge that the Americans were back, with "a lot of arms stored in the Philippines," as he put it, and were reclaiming Subic as a military base? Mr. Duterte offered no proof other than to say that "these are things known to us because I have reports and assessments given to me by the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines)."
Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority administrator Wilma Eisma issued a denial, saying US military ships make port visits "for disembarkation and reembarkation of troops in case of military exercises under the VFA," but that these last only a few days and such visits "have not in any way converted the Subic Bay Freeport into a military base."
At about the same time that Mr. Duterte was escalating his anti-US rhetoric, no corresponding noise could be heard from Malacañang on the latest disturbing news of continuing Chinese expansionism in the West Philippine Sea.
Simularity, a US-based technology company, released images on Feb 16 showing new construction activities in at least seven sites in Panganiban Reef. One of the sites, previously seen bare as of May last year, showed "construction of a permanent cylindrical structure 16 metres in diameter," believed to be an antenna mount structure that started to be installed in early December.
Panganiban Reef, about 232 km from Palawan, forms part of the Philippines' 370-km exclusive economic zone (EEZ), but was seized by China in 1995. The Arbitral Ruling of 2016, which invalidated China's sweeping claims over the South China Sea, upheld Philippine sovereignty over its EEZ and continental shelf, including Panganiban Reef.
While the Duterte administration has continued to tiptoe around the Philippines' victory at the arbitral tribunal, other countries have been more upfront in invoking the ruling to push back against China.
A new Asean Studies Centre survey, for instance, which ranked the Philippines lowest among Asean countries in terms of the government's response to Covid-19, also echoed concerns about China's intrusion in the South China Sea and the importance of the ruling in protecting the sovereignty of claimant-countries.
Social Weather Stations president Mahar Mangahas clarified in his column last Saturday that the survey was "not an ordinary opinion poll'' as it consisted of opinion makers, policy makers and thought-leaders from Asean countries. These thought-leaders, according to Mangahas, listed China's militarisation and encroachment as the top two concerns over the situation in the South China Sea, and their top choice for Asean response, at 85 percent, was to "take a principled stand that upholds international law, including Unclos, and respect the 2016 arbitral tribunal's ruling.''
Mr. Duterte has described his attitude toward China as "walking on a tightrope,'' saying he "cannot afford to be brave in the mouth against China because, well, we are avoiding any confrontation…" But five years of deferring to and walking on eggshells around Beijing have only seemingly encouraged the behemoth's wanton trampling over Philippine sovereignty.
Del Rosario, who spearheaded the Philippines' case at the arbitral tribunal and filed a case of crimes against humanity versus Chinese leader Xi Jinping at the International Criminal Court, said that China owes Filipinos more than P230 billion (S$6.24 billion) in damages for "undertaking the most devastating marine destruction in the West Philippine Sea.''
"In this case,'' he asked, "when will President Duterte demand China to pay?"
The Philippine Daily Inquirer is a member of The Straits Times media partner Asia News Network, an alliance of 23 news media organisations.