What happened to you, Harry?

University of the Philippines professor Danny Arao asked this question recently as he questioned presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s 180-degree turn on issues pertaining to press freedom and human rights.

Arao reminded Roque, his friend and colleague, that he championed press freedom and human rights before he accepted the position defending President Duterte’s assault on press freedom, human rights and the rule of law.

Indeed, what happened to UP law professor Roque?

How could he turn his back on logical thinking and the rule of law with his recent pronouncement that when China loses its might and decides to return the disputed islands to the Philippines, Filipinos would even be thankful to China for building the islands on the South China reefs that a United Nations tribunal has ruled belong to the Philippines and which are within the country’s exclusive economic zone?

What made him believe that after spending billions of dollars to build islands over those reefs and putting up airstrips and other structures needed for a military base, China would suddenly decide to give back the islands to the Philippines?

What made him think that after ignoring the UN ruling and risking alienation from the family of nations that China would have remorse and turn back the islands to the Philippines?

What made him think that after gaining critical military stronghold in that strategically located and mineral-rich part of the South China Sea that it would later give up the islands?

“Wishful thinking,” said Sen. Grace Poe.

“The West Philippine Sea will freeze over first before China will even begin toying with the idea of giving us back those islands,” Poe said.

“Outlandish,” said another UP professor, Dr. Jay Batongbacal of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea (IMLOS), who added that Roque’s comments show that the Duterte Administration and its ranking officials are indifferent to the possible risks that these artificially-built islands and facilities pose to the country’s maritime rights and resources.

In comments posted on Facebook last Wednesday, Roque said that “there will come a time, when China’s might had ceased, when we will have to thank them for the islands because it is only the Philippines that can legally build on those artificial islands.”

Those artificial islands built by China, he said, “will be ours if we can ask China to leave.”

If we can, that’s the key phrase.

We lost the chance to keep those islands when the Duterte Administration decided on a simplistic and defeatist path in dealing with the sea dispute even after the country had obtained a hard-earned legal victory when the UN Arbitral Tribunal decided on July 12, 2016 that the Philippines has exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea) and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid.

The tribunal also ruled that China had violated Philippine sovereign rights.

But Duterte, who has been suspiciously cuddly with the Chinese since during his presidential campaign, said there was no urgency to resolve the dispute despite the legal victory and said he would rather avoid confrontation and that he was in favor of sharing the rich resources and fishing grounds offered by the disputed islands.

“There’s no such thing as you can claim international waters as your own. The economic zones provided are good and are [of a] consensus, and concessions that are part of the respect for each other’s interest,” Duterte said.

Since then, Duterte has been engaging in direct talks with Beijing and has been bragging about obtaining pledges of billions of dollars in loans and grants and other concessions from the Chinese.

Over the weekend, Duterte said it’s not the time to fight China and that any move that the country would make in protest of China’s actions may be viewed negatively by our giant neighbor and lead to war that, he said, we are not ready to fight.

So go ahead, bully, you can punch us in the nose whenever you like and we won’t raise even a whimper because we are not ready to hit back.

At the rate Duterte, Foreign Secretary Peter Cayetano, Roque and other government officials are defending China’s continued South China Sea reclamations and building of what are obviously military installations on these artificial islands, the Chinese don’t even need to have spokespersons to defend its aggressive actions.

For example, when the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies reported the continued installation of facilities on man-made islands reclaimed by China in previous years, including a high-frequency radar system, buried facilities likely for weapons storage, missile shelters and underground storage facilities for ammunition and other military materiel at the Kagitingan, Zamora and Panganiban Reefs in December last year, Cayetano downplayed the report.

“We’ve never said that they have stopped (building) or that there is nothing happening. What we are saying is, they are not occupying areas that are not habited, meaning, they are not occupying new areas,” he added.

Earlier in August, Cayetano said that those who would like to frame the South China Sea issue as one between the Philippines and China had political objectives and simply wanted to shame Beijing before the international community.

President Duterte himself said after his soft handling of the sea row during the ASEAN Summit that he wasn’t “trying to please” Chinese President Xi Jinping, but admitted Manila has gained from its friendly relations with Beijing.

“Xi Jinping has been good to me. And we’re trying to, not really please him but ah — you know, that China Sea will always be there.”

To Duterte and Cayetano, it did not matter that China is putting up facilities for war right in our yard for as long as we’re getting pledges of assistance and loans that until now remain just pledges, carrots dangled for the Philippines to toe China’s line.

As I said in a previous column, this government would rather spread its legs and enjoy the rape of its sovereignty than put up a fight even just in the legal and diplomatic fronts.

Roque, who never ceases to disappoint me, on the other hand, when sought to comment on the reported expansion of China’s reclamation efforts, said: “We don’t know where these works are. We continue to rely on China’s good faith. Location is material since we do not have claims on all the islands and waters in the disputed area.”

Roque, echoing the administration’s penchant for blaming the Aquino government for the country’s problems, said: “If the Aquino administration was not able to do anything about these artificial islands, what do they want us to do?”

File a protest and express outrage, for God’s sake!

That’s what Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana wanted, after all, but wasn’t able to push through.

Expressing outrage and filing a diplomatic protest do not necessarily mean we’re declaring war against China.

Isn’t it outrageous that a neighborhood bully is making a mess in our backyard and we just shut our eyes and hope for the best?

Sen. Kiko Pangilinan, LP president, slammed Roque’s remarks, lamenting that instead of expressing outrage, Malacañang has displayed a nonchalant attitude in playing down China’s militarization of the entire South China Sea.”

“It disturbs every Filipino to hear the Malacañang spokesman relying on China’s mere words that it would not reclaim new islands, thus, we can sleep soundly at night. It’s like telling Filipinos not to worry because while China constructed a building, it would only stay on the ground floor,” he said, adding that the Duterte Administration should protest the “blatant” violations of China, as well as beef up the country’s defenses in guarding what’s left of the Philippines’ territory.

It’s time Duterte stops squeezing juice from his misguided policy of conciliation towards China, and expect China to show good faith because based on recent history, China has shown it cannot be trusted when it seized isles from both the Philippines and Vietnam in the disputed South China Sea.

The administration should at least make crystal clear its policy vis-à-vis the militarization of the South China Sea.

The country cannot remain nonchalant amid these clear violations against our sovereignty and amid rising tensions in the region.

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