Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay was caught lying on the lobby he supposedly made on the crafting of the joint Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) statement during the recent foreign ministers meeting in Laos as he said yesterday that he "vigorously" pushed for Asean to refer to the arbitral tribunal ruling in the diluted communique.
Asked at a news conference yesterday after a meeting with US Secretary of State John Kerry if he pushed for Asean to refer to the ruling, Yasay said: "Yes, vigorously."
Yasay initially said last Tuesday he had not asked Asean members to refer to the ruling in its end-of-meeting statement.
"No. Never, never did. Please don't put words into my mouth," Yasay told reporters in Vientiane when asked if he had called for a reference.
"The other countries are not part of our filing of the case before the arbitral tribunal so why would we insist that it be put in the ASEAN statement?"
When asked about his conflicting statements, Yasay denied making the comments attributed to him in Laos.
A recording of Tuesday's interview in Vientiane by an AFP reporter confirmed Yasay's initial comments.
When asked to explain why Yasay denied lobbying, a foreign affairs spokesman said Wednesday he was unable to clarify.
Diplomats attending the meeting also told AFP that Yasay had pushed for a reference to the tribunal's verdict.
Adding to the confusion, Cambodia's foreign ministry spokesman Chum Sounry said his nation had not vetoed Philippine efforts.
He said Yasay withdrew his request for the tribunal mention, after discussions in which Cambodia made clear it wanted to remain "neutral".
"The Filipino foreign minister himself decided to remove (it) and not to mention the ruling," Chum Sounry said.
The Asean statement avoided mentioning this month's ruling by a UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague that Beijing's claims to almost all of the strategic waterway had no legal basis, instead calling merely for "self-restraint".
Yasay said the statement was a "victory" for ASEAN, as it referred to upholding principles of international law.
The Philippines, under the previous administration of Benigno Aquino, launched the legal challenge in 2013 against China's claims to most of the sea.
China insisted it has sovereign rights to nearly all of the sea, including waters approaching ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
Efforts to forge a united ASEAN front on the issue have crumbled in recent years as China has successfully lobbied Cambodia and Laos, which are members of the bloc but Chinese allies.
The Philippines has also adopted a more moderate stance on China under the new government of President Duterte, who has courted closer Chinese economic and political ties since taking office on June 30.
Yasay claimed that he "vigorously pushed for the inclusion and mentioning of the arbitral tribunal" decision in the release but compromised to avoid the risk of a divided ASEAN, adding that all the ministers "precisely agreed not mentioning the arbitral award" not the other way around.
The Philippines had never urged or asked the international community, particularly the ASEAN to support us on the merits of our case "we simply asked them to recognize that the action we took in peacefully resolving our dispute with China was done in accordance with the principles of international law," he stressed.
Even before the arbitral tribunal came up with its award, ASEAN as a regional group was not able to come up with a unified statement.
Although the inclusion of the PCA ruling would have been advantageous for the Philippines, "that was not the object of our meeting with ASEAN," Yasay said since "the arbitral award is a matter between the China and the Philippines that we will continue to resolve in a peaceful manner."
The purpose of ASEAN and the purpose of that meeting were simply to address the South China Sea issue in terms of trying to resolve it consistent with the general principles of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
This was reaffirmed through their directive toward the parties to pursue peaceful negotiation in accordance with this Unclos, Yasay added.
According to him, the mere fact that a unified statement has been released is more than enough.
"I'm very proud that ASEAN has recognized its key role as a regional group that upholds its centrality and solidarity in addressing various problems and concerns in the region," Yasay said.
According to Kerry, the omission of this decision has been strategically compensated in the communique by referencing with all the legal rights, all legal process and legal decision which underscores the importance of full and effective implementation of UNCLOS.
He said that it is for the best since in a diplomatic approach "you don't always have to include every single word that may in fact sometimes make it harder to get to the dialogue that you want to get to."
He hoped for a course among the claimants "without coercion and the use of threat of force" reiterating that the decision itself is already abiding, but "we are not trying to create confrontation, we are trying to create solution."
In his joint presser with Yasay, he called on all parties to achieve a process that will narrow the geographic scope of the maritime disputes, set standards for behavior in contested areas and achieve "mutually acceptable solutions, perhaps even a series of confidence-building steps."
EDCA on - Yasay
Yasay also guaranteed U.S. Secretary John Kerry that the Philippines will push through with the full implementation of th Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) which that Supreme Court upheld as an executive agreement that does not need concurrence from Congress.
Yasay said the Philippines and the US will pursue planning processes to fully enact EDCA which will enable the United States a broader access and permission to use local military bases.
The contract signed in 2014 during the state visit of U.S. President Barack Obama in Manila will also increase joint training between Filipino and U.S. military officers.
Kerry said EDCA will not only aid in enhancing military modernization but will also be instrumental in rapid humanitarian assistance and disaster response.
Asked if clauses under this agreement will be used to enforce the PCA ruling which Beijing had disregarded, Yasay said EDCA was not connected with the PCA decision.
"The ruling and the EDCA has no bearing or a direct bearing whatsoever," he said.
Even as china has clearly state that they will not recognize the decision "it does not automatically seeks to play EDCA," he said.
The agreement will continue, Yasay clarified to which Kerry also related as his response.
Kerry has already stressed that the United States won't take a position on the competing sovereignty issues and claims in the South China Sea, but will retain a "strong position on protecting the rights, freedom and the lawful uses of air and sea space as defined by the international law."
He added that by supporting this rule, they cleared that "the position of the arbitral tribunal based on the UNCLOS is legally binding," and "must always be respected."
Yasay in his joint briefing with Kerry included that the good side of having EDCA is we can already address common challenges such as countering extremism with efforts to work with the US in eradicating groups that exercise these horrendous acts.
No confrontation - Kerry
Kerry said Washington wanted to avoid "confrontation" in the South China Sea despite the PCA ruling.
America's top diplomat said the United States wanted China and the Philippines to engage in talks and "confidence-building measures".
"The decision itself is a binding decision but we're not trying to create a confrontation. We are trying to create a solution mindful of the rights of people established under the law," Kerry said.
Kerry said the United States saw an "opportunity" for claimants to peacefully resolve the row.
"We hope to see a process that will narrow the geographic scope of the maritime disputes, set standards for behaviour in contested areas, lead to mutually acceptable solutions, perhaps even a series of confidence-building steps," he said.
Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have claims to the South China Sea, a vital waterway through which $5 trillion in annual trade passes. It is also believed to sit atop vast reserves of oil and gas.
Kerry, who arrived in Manila on Tuesday after attending a regional summit in Laos, met with Duterte after Yasay.
Last Tuesday, Kerry said he would encourage Duterte, who assumed office on June 30, to engage in dialogue and "turn the page" with China.
Kerry was also expected to raise with Duterte US concerns about human rights and the rule of law.
"The Philippines has an unhappy history of extrajudicial killings and violence (against) journalists and others," a US official told reporters travelling with the secretary.
"We hope to hear more from President Duterte about ... protecting human rights (and) maintaining the rule of law."
Duterte has launched a bloody war on crime, urging law enforcers, communist rebels and even the public to kill criminals.
Since he took office, police reported over 200 deaths while media tallies have said more than 300 have died, including suspected extrajudicial killings.
Even before he assumed the presidency, Duterte drew criticism from United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon and human rights advocates for his calls to kill criminals, as well as comments stating that corrupt journalists deserved to die.
US pledges $32M
MalacaAang also reiterated that the government will uphold EDCA as Duterte met Kerry at the Palace over lunch.
In a press briefing, Presidential Spokesman Ernesto Abella said that given the SC's reiteration of the constitutionality of EDCA the other day, the relationship between MalacaAang and the White House is apparently sustained.
"They affirmed the longstanding relations between the two countries. On the EDCA, it was affirmed that whatever works with the Philippines will be what will work," Abella said.
Abella revealed that Kerry promised Duterte to grant $32 million (P1.4 billion) for "training, services and law enforcement" which will probably be handed to state security forces as matters such as Duterte's war on drugs and terrorist threats were accordingly discussed.
"They also discussed common concerns such as terrorism, crime, drugs, religious fanaticism and maritime security. They also mentioned a menu of solutions," he said.
Abella hinted the government will insist on the PCA ruling will as a reference when Duterte succeeds in negotiating a dialog with China.
"There was no agreement (between Kerry and Duterte on the PCA ruling). Except that whatever talks we will enage in, it will begin with the ruling. That will be the foundation... the ruling regarding the area," he said.
"With regards to the supposed abandoning the PCA ruling, we're not in a stalemate yet. Conversations (with China) will continue to proceed. Let's not focus on confrontation, let's focus on solutions," Abella said.
Prior to his visit in the Philippines, Kerry said on Tuesday in Vientiane, Laos that he will encourage Duterte to talk to China and that both governments should avoid making any step that could aggravate the tension between the two countries.
"China indicated its willingness and readiness to engage in a dialogue and bilateral negotiation with the Philippines... I would encourage President Duterte to engage in dialogue and in negotiation," Kerry said.
Former Bayan Muna Rep. Neri Colmenares, one of the petitioners opposing the EDCA before the SC, said that Duterte should not allow the Philippines to be a "pawn" in the cold tension between world powers US and China.
"There is no truth to the idea that with EDCA, the US will defend the Philippines against China's growing aggression. The Duterte government should stop allowing the Philippines to be used as a pawn in the struggle for control over the South China Sea between the big powers. We must resist these attempts to use our territory as a launching pad to strike at other nations," Colmenares said in an e-mail to the Daily Tribune.
"We ask President Duterte to inspect the US military installations inside Philippine military bases," the militant former lawmaker said.
Another militant legislator, Kabataan Partylist Rep. Sarah Elago said that Duterte has the option to junk or disregard the EDCA as the SC also ruled that it is an executive agreement, thereby giving Duterte power to move for its review, or even abrogation.
"It would be easy for the administration to not only review but also eventually abrogate EDCA since the Supreme Court ruled that it is an executive agreement. While we do not subscribe to that view, having EDCA as an executive agreement empowers the president to immediately scrap the deal," Elago noted.
"Kerry should make clear to President Duterte that the Philippines' government and security forces must respect universal rights and freedoms and constitutional guarantees of due legal process in enforcing the country's laws, including those governing illegal drugs," HRW Asian convenor Philem Kine said.
"Kerry should also encourage President Duterte to launch an immediate probe into the sharp increase in killings by police of suspected drug dealers and drug users and to curb official rhetoric which suggests an implicit, if not explicit, official support for extrajudicial killings as an approach to crime control," he added.
"John Kerry is in no position to lecture the Philippines on respect for human rights as it is the US which is the number one human rights violator in the world today. The US invades countries, undertakes drone strikes against civilians, and commits other atrocities in order to 'keep America safe'," Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes said in a text message.
EDCA a vital deal - solons
Two lawmakers underscored the importance for the government to make use of the final Supreme Court (SC) ruling declaring as constitutional the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) to fully modernize the country's military hardware.
House Deputy Speaker and Batangas Rep. Raneo Abu and Bulacan Rep. Jose Antonio "Jonathan" Sy-Alvarado said that agreement should be used by the government to modernize the AFP.
"EDCA should help us modernize our military hardware. The government should secure full support from the US government to uplift the capability not only of our AFP personnel, but also its armaments," said Abu.
"The US should also show generosity by providing us surveillance and fighter aircrafts, tanks, war ships, patrol boats and training," Abu pointed out.
Sy-Alvarado, for his part, said that the SC ruling could pave the way for a credible defense position in the West Philippine Sea.
"This will provide us a credible maritime defense," said Sy-Alvarado referring to the EDCA that provides for the increased rotational presence of US troops in the country.
Former Speaker Quezon City Rep. Feliciano "Sonny" Belmonte Jr. said the SC ruling was expected, stressing EDCA from the very beginning falls under the ambit of the Constitution.
"As I said before, the fact does not violate the Constitution. There are no constitutional infirmities in that agreement. The ruling is commendable because this will help the country establish a maritime defense," said Belmonte.
The SC final decision came after the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration decision favoring the Philippines in the maritime dispute, stressing that China's historic nine-dash line had no historic and legal basis and that the West Philippine Sea falls within the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ).