MANILA, Philippines - The recent meeting between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario had just rendered the 61-year-old Mutual Defense Treaty useless in the event that China attacks the country over the disputes in the West Philippine Sea, Sen. Joker Arroyo said yesterday.
“As matters stand, China now confirms what it had thought all along, that the 61-year Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) cannot be invoked in the Panatag standoff,” Arroyo said. “Whereas before there was at least some doubt where the US stands in the crisis, now it has been clarified.”
Arroyo made the assessment after the United States declared that it would not take sides in the territorial dispute between the Philippines and China.
Last Tuesday, Clinton stressed that the US government is firm in taking a position toward a peaceful settlement, a multilateral approach, and the use of rules-based regime in accordance with international law in resolving the territorial disputes.
The US government, however, assured the Philippines of assistance in maritime security and stressed its preference for a multilateral and “collaborative” approach to solving territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
“It’s all words, none in substance. They are giving us old Coast Guard ships… with no armory,” Arroyo said, reacting to the US pledge to help in improving our defense capability by giving us high endurance cutters.
The two countries also stressed the importance of their MDT but kept quiet on whether the 1951 pact obliged the US to come to the aid of its ally in case shooting breaks out at Panatag Shoal.
The Philippines and China has been locked in a maritime dispute over Panatag Shoal, which is only 124 nautical miles from Zambales and well within the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone.
China is claiming the entire West Philippine Sea as its own.
Senate majority leader Vicente Sotto III said the least the US can do is help the Philippines, being its number one ally in the region.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson, on the other hand, said the US cannot afford to take sides considering its vast business interests in China.
Arroyo said the Aquino administration may have had some headway had it initiated backchannel talks before going into the high profile talks in Washington.
“The Del Rosario-Clinton-Gazmin-Panetta ministerial meeting is a lesson for us, a small power, and that is, we should not embark on a high-profile meeting unless we are sure about a modicum of success in the negotiation,” Arroyo said.
Arroyo said President Aquino’s mother, ex-President Cory, was a master of “backchannel diplomacy.”
Informal talks were first made and the points of agreement were more or less agreed upon before the formal talks take place.
“If there was no agreement in the preparatory talks, it was useless to proceed with the formal meeting,” the senator asserted.
Veteran columnist Teddy Boy Locsin was among the most effective persons in the diplomatic talks then. “Ask Teddy Boy Locsin who was 25 years younger then. He was Cory’s effective diplomatic intercessor, among others,” Arroyo noted.
Phl stands firm on position
Malacañang said the position of the US over Panatag Shoal was “understood” but it will not affect Manila’s position.
“The US has its reasons. We have our own positions and we have our own actions to take to assert ourselves,” Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a press briefing.
Asked about Taiwan’s claim over Panatag Shoal, Carandang said: “I will reiterate what we’ve always said: Panatag Shoal is part of Philippine territory and we will do everything we can to preserve our sovereignty over Panatag Shoal.”
Taiwan is considered a renegade province of China that claims ownership over the whole of the South China Sea.
Carandang said the visit of President Aquino to the US was also discussed during the 2+2 meeting in Washington but the details were not available yet.
President Aquino acknowledged, albeit indirectly, that gas exploration in Recto Bank off Palawan may take some time due to the territorial dispute, but expressed confidence that there will be other finds.
He also explained that the government is doing its best to resolve the issue through a diplomatic solution.
Affected fishers cry for help
Meanwhile, local officials and fishermen from Zambales directly affected by the standoff in Panatag Shoal are appealing for the early and peaceful resolution of the problem.
Masinloc Mayor Desiree Edora said that since the standoff started last April 10, municipal revenue from commercial fishing has dropped from 70 to 80 percent because the fishermen were afraid to fish in the disputed territory.
To solidify its territorial jurisdiction on Panatag Shoal, which is also being claimed by neighboring Palauig town, the municipal government last year passed a resolution declaring the area, also known as Bajo de Masinloc, as under its jurisdiction.
Edora said that before the standoff, Filipino fishermen along with Vietnamese, Chinese and Taiwanese fish regularly in Panatag Shoal without any incident.
– With Delon Porcalla, Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude