Duterte feared offending China after Hague ruling – Lorenzana

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte ordered his Cabinet not to "be overly celebrating because we might offend China" after Manila won a historic case against Beijing in 2016, said Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on Friday, November 23.

Before Duterte made these instructions, Lorenzana had even thought of sending a "small force" to recover Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) from China in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). The idea didn't materialize.

Lorenzana recounted these at a South China Sea forum organized by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in Makati City on Friday. 

Lorenzana said that a week before the Philippines won its case against China on July 12, 2016, he received a call from former United States defense secretary Robert Gates. He recalled Gates telling him that "the ruling will come out soon, and we think it is in your favor." 

"Don't do anything in the South China Sea that will provoke trouble there," Lorenzana quoted Gates as saying.

Lorenzana said he had another idea back then. "What I was thinking then was, I talked to the Philippine Navy and asked them, can we field a small force? Because I was thinking of Scarborough Shoal, maybe if we can drive away the Chiense there and we can recover Scarborough Shoal..."

The defense secretary continued: "But when the arbitral ruling was about to be announced, we were all in Malacañang, all the Cabinet members were there. When it finally came out, we had this meeting with the President and it was decided that, he called it, let's do it as a soft landing. He said we should not be overly celebrating because we might offend China." 

Lorenzana also remembered how the foreign secretary back then, Perfecto Yasay Jr, announced the Philippines' victory, "and there were some criticisms of him because he appeared to be not the victorious guy in that announcement." 

"He was very somber and very serious," Lorenzana said of Yasay. "People, I think, thought that we should be celebrating and laughing and shouting that we won the arbitral ruling. But that's not the case." 

This backstory reflects the Duterte administration's attitude toward the ruling in the case filed by the Aquino administration at The Hague. Duterte has decided to set aside this ruling in exchange for loans and grants from China, a policy that critics describe as defeatist. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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