NEW YORK – Following the 4th Filipino-American Community General Assembly, an annual gathering of Filipino organizations in New York organized by the Philippine Consulate, the new Ambassador of the Philippines to the US, Jose Manuel ‘Babe’ Romualdez met with the Filipino American press on February 3.
This is Romualdez’s first event in New York City to meet the Filipino American community. Consul General Theresa Dizon-De Vega, who is set to leave New York for a new post in the Philippines, said that the ambassador will be traveling to different jurisdictions in the US to connect with the Filipino-American community and to meet members of the media.
Romualdez introduced himself as being previously with the media and is now “on the other side of the fence.” He started his media career as a reporter with Channel 9 and writes a column in the Philippine Star.
There were important issues that came up in a conversation with him but this report considers only major and controversial issues of the day: press freedom, the status of the territorial dispute with China, and President Duterte’s war on drugs. Others topics covered were Duterte’s travel plans, immigration, business processing outsourcing, and the economy.
Philippine Rise and West Philippine Sea
He was asked about the Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise) and the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea — waters within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
The Philippine Rise is a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau which is located in the Philippines’ eastern border and far away from the West Philippines Sea. It is believed to be rich in minerals and gas. Unlike Scarborough Shoal, no other country is claiming it. In 2012, the United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (UNCLCS) ruled that it is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) recently allowed China to do maritime research in Philippine Rise which was heavily criticized by lawmakers including former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr. and senior Justice of the Supreme Court Antonio Carpio.
Scarborough Shoal is the international name of Panatag Shoal, a resource-rich fishing ground off the coast of Zambales province. Kalayaan is a group of islands occupied by the Philippines in the Spratly archipelago. China claims almost all of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea, including waters near the shores of the Philippines and other claims to territory in the waterway — Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam, and Taiwan.
China ignored the UNCLCS ruling and went on to build artificial islands on reefs in the Spratly archipelago, topping some of them with runways and military installations.
In his response, Romualdez said the Philippine Embassy is working closely with the US especially with the American military establishment mainly for the freedom of the seas. “As far as our claim [is concerned], as President Duterte has already said it on many occasions, we are not giving it up, we are merely changing our tact, specifically with our Chinese neighbor. We are working with them to try to come up with a fair and just solution to the conflict if you want to call it that,” the ambassador said.
“We’d like to open up our economy to more businesses especially with China, our neighbor which has a growing economy – one of the biggest economies – all that, will redound to the benefit of the Philippines down the road.”
In his view, this South China sea issue “can be extensively addressed as we go towards the third year of President Duterte’s term”. “You’ll see us opening up the subject with our Chinese friends to come up with a just and fair solution. We are also working with the ASEAN,” he said.
As to the perception that it might be too late by then since China may have put up its stake in the Philippine Rise and Spratly archipelago, Romualdez alluded to the time of President Aquino when the US did not want to be involved in the region’s problems. According to him, the US said then that this must be resolved by countries in the region until those photos of structures [being built] in Spratly came up.
“We don’t have the wherewithal to stop this. Obviously, we don’t have the military muscle that the US has. That is why President Duterte has said that he had hoped the US would have played a major role at that time,” said Romualdez.
Since the Philippines was left on its own to independently deal with it, he believes that the best approach is to talk to China. “Tell them, let’s talk,” he said, which was unlike during Aquino’s term when it was winding down, there was no more communication with China. He added that even the embassy in Beijing was “shut out from having any bilateral discussion with the Chinese.”
Whether the constructions goes on, “it is something we cannot stop anyway,” he said. “We just have to make sure that what we have won in our case in UNCLCS will be observed.” He also remarked that a reasonable joint venture with them and with other countries in the region could be entered into to conduct research in the Philippine Rise.
The ambassador considers the media as an important group especially when it comes to reporting real news and its important role in society.
“The situation right now is that press freedom is protected,” he said, “and I welcome questions regarding our work here in the US.”
Regarding defending press freedom in the Philippines citing the cases of Rappler, an online news outlet whose license to operate was recently revoked, and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading broadsheet. Both have been critical of the Duterte administration’s war on drugs.
President Duterte warned them including ABS-CBN, a major television network, of repercussions for criticizing him for alleged human rights abuses. In many of his speeches, President Duterte’s threat against them has been a recurring theme. Weeks after Duterte’s threats, Marixi Prieto, Chairwoman of the Inquirer Group of Companies, said the family had decided to quit the newspaper business and was in talks to sell it to tycoon Ramon Ang.
Ambassador Romualdez’s Response
“The only way you can describe what happened in these two cases (Rappler and Inquirer) is really very simple,” the ambassador said. For Rappler, it is about the rule of law, saying that the “media cannot be above the law” since Rappler is not 100 percent owned by Filipinos as required by the Constitution.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) chairman, Teresita Herbosa, who was appointed by President Aquino, “is not one of those that will do something because she was told to do it, she’s not like that,” said the ambassador. He mentioned that Herbosa was supposed to be a Supreme Court justice but one of the reasons she did not get it is because she did not lobby for it “although she was very much qualified.” “Following the law is very important,” Romualdez said.
On the other hand, with the Inquirer, he said that it was a business decision made by the Prietos “to simply give up the media business” in light of mile-long issues they have. “It is very hard to mix business [with] being a critic of the government especially if you have a [business] contract with the government. It is one of the hardest things… you are always following a thin line,” Romualdez said.
The Philippines as a police state
The Philippines’ economy is now strong but with the impression that is also fast becoming a police state with stories of mass murders of small-time drug pushers and users that are being reported. When will the killings stop or when can people expect a delivery of justice?
Romualdez explains the situation
In explaining the situation, Romualdez traced Duterte’s story from the time he was mayor to when he took over as president. As mayor of Davao, Duterte had a major drug problem and he was able to substantially cut down criminality and the economy went to 9 percent every year as confirmed by leading economists and businessmen, according to the ambassador.
When Duterte became president in 2016, he realized how bad and serious the drug problem was with an estimated 4 million pushers and users in the entire country. “Even US intelligence confirmed that the drug situation was pretty bad, really bad,” he said.
Although he promised to resolve the drug problem in six months, President Duterte now knows that “he cannot finish it” within that time. He realized that it might even take “beyond his term to accomplish it,” the ambassador said.
“Drug is a major worldwide problem; it cannot be resolved overnight,” Romualdez said. The US acknowledges that drug problem is also growing as President Trump has recently mentioned it in his State of the Union address.
Romualdez also mentioned that “terrorism is tied to drugs. “Sometimes, you have to go to the extreme to solve a problem,” he said and cited the Marawi conflict months ago which took months before it ended. What had been thought of as a small band of terrorists which could be contained quickly, it was found out that the insurgents were well-funded out of drug deals they were running. “They had resources, arms, and very sophisticated armory,” the ambassador said.
Things will be different in the coming days. Romualdez said the president has now given authority to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) to deal with the drug problem and that a new law is being crafted in Congress to increase the capabilities of the agency. He also said that they are now working with the US to train “our people”. “It is important to identify key areas to solve the drug situation,” the ambassador said.
Added Romualdez: “In the long run there’s going to be a sophistication in the drug war.”