By Mei Jingya, Sina English
What a ridicule! Philippine media is now buzzing with their new find: Officials of the country’s Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) suddenly began to refer to China as ‘the northern neighbor’ and presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda even used ‘our friendly neighbor’.
The United Arab Emirates-based newspaper Gulf News said in a July 19th report that the Philippines is softening its stance on South China Sea disputes. However, this claim can hardly be backed up by evidence.
For instance, DFA Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio on Wednesday published an article titled ‘Why there was no ASEAN Joint Communique’, playing up why Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario denounced Chinese “duplicity and intimidation” in the South China Sea. Basilio also accused Cambodia, who hosted the ASEAN regional forum, of sabotaging Manila’s efforts to make Huangyan issue part of the communiqué and “doing Beijing’s bidding”.
In a commentary titled “The one that DFA cannot name” published on the Daily Inquirer, the author noted “strange talk” of DFA officials, including Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario. They seemed to deliberately avoid naming China when discussing ties between Manila and Beijing. Del Rosario reportedly kept referring to China as that “northern neighbor” at a news conference last week. Del Rosario’s undersecretary, Erlinda Basilio, has also taken to calling China that “neighboring country.”
When asked by reporters about the change of tone, Philippine presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda’s answer added to the mystery, saying “I would have to ask Secretary Del Rosario [why he does not want to use the name of] our friendly neighbor.” Lacierda added that the government had yet to decide whether to redeploy maritime vessels to Huanyan Island and he didn’t think the situation had turned for the worse.
In a separate Philippine Star report, DFA Undersecretary Basilio on July 18 said China has blocked Philippine ships and fishing vessels from the lagoon of Huanyan Island by setting up barriers to its entry point. The Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources then issued a notice, warning fishermen not to approach disputed areas even if the fishing ban has been lifted. The warning was made for concerns of fishermen’s safety, it said, and had no bearing on the Huangyan standoff.
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Thursday also advised President Aquino not to touch on the Philippines' stand-off with China when he delivers his State of the Nation Address on Monday, since “it is a sensitive national security problem”.
According to the Gulf News, observers have noted “the Philippines has softened its stance versus China on contested claims in the South China Sea, in deference to the peaceful mood of the Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and to the overseas development assistance recently extended by China to the Philippine government”.
But, this does not mean Manila is ready to abdicate its claim over disputed areas in the South China Sea.
Last week, ASEAN did not issue a joint communiqué, the first time in 45 years, at the end of the Foreign Ministers Meeting, because Manila insisted the Huangyan Island dispute should be written into it.
On the flip side, President Aquino thanked China Wednesday for funding a water-improvement project. “I thank the Chinese government for making this vital project a reality. This funding only indicates how neighbors in the region help each other to address problems and better serve the people,” he said during the inauguration of the project.