Senate starts probe on China’s militarization of Spratly

By Mario Casayuran

After prodding by the Senate minority bloc, the Senate foreign relations committee will finally hold a public hearing on the controversial militarization by China of parts of the Spratly island chain legally owned by the Philippine government.

Senate of the Philippines / Manila Bulletin Senate of the Philippines / Manila Bulletin

“I welcome the call for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations to conduct a public hearing on the government’s policy towards China. I agree that the Senate, as an independent body, should assert our role in helping shape the government’s foreign policy,’’ declared Sen. Loren Legarda, committee chairwoman.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin M. Drilon had said it is up to the Legarda committee to assert the right of the Senate to conduct public hearings on foreign policy issues since the Upper House is the partner of the Executive branch on foreign policy matters.

Earlier, Sen. Gregorio B. Honasan II, chairman of the Senate national defense and security committee, had said his committee is willing to become Legarda’s secondary committee should she call a public hearing on issues related to China’s refusal to accept a decision of the United Nations (UN) Arbitration Court rejecting its historical claim over parts of the South China Sea.

Both Legarda and Honasan are members of the Senate majority bloc.

Opposition Sen. Riza Hontiveros, a member of the Senate minority bloc, had also asked Legarda to conduct a public hearing on the militarization of parts of the Spratlys and the robbery by elements of the Chinese Coast Guard of the meager fish catch of Filipino fishermen at the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.

The Shoal is more than 200 nautical miles west off Zambales or more than 700 nautical miles east off Hainan, the easternmost territory of mainland China.

There are two Senate resolutions, PSR 722 and PSR 723, on the China issue that have been transferred to Legarda’s committee.

‘We will soon conduct a public hearing and I will work with my colleagues, including the Committee on National Defense and Security, in determining how best to support current initiatives to diffuse the tension, while at the same time protecting our sovereignty and territorial rights,’’ Legarda said.

“I maintain the view that diplomacy plays a key role in finding long term and durable solutions to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue,’’ she added.

In Thursday’s press briefing at the Senate building, Drilon said his group is making the call ‘’addressed to the chair of the (Senate foreign affairs) committee to assert the Senate’s role as a partner in the conduct of foreign affairs (and that) the Senate should make a serious look at this and assert the role of the Senate in this area.’’

Asked why the Senate foreign relations committee has not exercised its legislative role particularly on the Philippine-China territorial dispute, Drilon said that it is the call of the chairwoman of the committee to make a call as to what to investigate.

“Of course, you (the committee chairman) have to explain (to) our people and face all of these. We should not give up the Senate’s role as having the primacy in so far as the conduct of foreign relations is concerned,’’ he said.

“That is why the Senate is the treaty-ratifying body, not the House (of Representatives). That only indicates that the Constitution recognizes the power of the Senate in the conduct of foreign affairs,’’ he added.

Asked by Senate reporters on whether he supports calls for the Senate to conduct a foreign policy audit, Drilon said the Senate is the partner of the Executive branch in foreign relations.

“It is only correct that the Senate be informed of how foreign relations are being conducted; otherwise, we will be in the dark, and therefore, I support the proposed review of our relationship,’ he added.

On the reservation by Senate President Vicente C. Sotto III from discussing the issue, Drilon replied: “It’s difficult to comment on that. Again, I am just looking at the data and the contrast between the way we conduct our relations China and the way Vietnam would conduct its relations with China. From where we sit, we can see the difference.’’

Drilon said the appeasement policy of the Duterte administration in dealing with China does not necessarily result in better economic relations with China.

He cited economic data showing Vietnam getting better economic benefits although it has a more aggressive assertion against China of its rights in the South China Sea.

Hontiveros had said a foreign policy audit could scrutinize what kind of diplomatic actions were undertaken by Philippine foreign affairs officials against China and what diplomatic platforms and channels were used.

“A foreign policy audit would determine if the Duterte administration’s foreign policy framework is in compliance with our international obligations, particularly on the West Philippine Sea,’’ she said.

“President Duterte and his foreign affairs officials have the responsibility to inform the people about their foreign affairs strategy to respond to China’s aggressive actions in the region. The people need to see and be assured that our government is really upholding the country’s national interests,’’ she added.

On the decision of Malacanang to hold bilateral consultations with China instead of filing a new arbitration case for the robbery by Chinese Coast Guard elements of the fish catch of Pilipino fishermen and destruction by China of coral reefs in the Scarborough (Panatag) reefs off Zambales, Sen. Panfilo M. Lacson, a former Philippine National Police (PNP) chief, said: “I agree. When dealing with bilateral relations with any country, there couldn’t be a better option other than through diplomatic means; not only because it is the more practical approach or mechanism to resolve issues given the present circumstances but also the correct one.

“Filing a new arbitration case against China should only be resorted to as our second to the last and ultimate option which is going for war.’’