About to adjourn, Senate yet to probe China deals, other controversial contracts

MANILA, Philippines – With only 35 days left for the 17th Congress, the Senate still has not conducted any investigations into ongoing militarization in the South China Sea and the government’s deals with the Asian giant.

It has also not started or has not completed probes into the status of President Rodrigo Duterte's flagship program, "Build, Build, Build," and into conflict-of-interest issues involving his two appointees, Solicitor General Jose Calida and former special assistant to the President Christopher "Bong" Go.  

China's encroachment and deals 

In July 2016, the Philippines won a landmark international case against China over the South China Sea, parts of which the Philippines claims as the West Philippine Sea. The ruling dismissed China's 9-dash-line claim, which had been its basis for saying it owns the entire SCS.

Yet more than two years later, China continues to build structures in Philippine waters – with the Philippines sitting idly by, critics said. (READ: DFA won't publicly condemn China over bombers)

While the Senate's main role is legislation, it also has oversight functions. The chamber is also considered the President’s partner in charting the nation’s foreign policy. But, so far, the chamber has been silent.

As early as September 19, 2016, there was already a pending resolution seeking an inquiry into Duterte’s "conflicting" foreign policy.

Filed by opposition Senator Paolo Benigno Aquino IV, Senate Resolution 158 cited Duterte's statement to Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua, saying he would set aside the South China Sea ruling in dealing with China for now. (READ: Justice Carpio hits Duterte policy after Hague ruling)

At the time, Duterte began leaning toward Russia and China and away from the United States, Manila’s traditional ally.

In May 2018, the 6-member minority bloc, together with Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto and Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito, filed Senate Resolution 761, expressing grave concern over the “increasing militarization” by China and urging the Department of Foreign Affairs to file a diplomatic protest.

The Senate did not adopt the measure, rendering it unofficial. It was referred to the Senate committee on national defense and security, chaired by Senator Gregorio Honasan II.

Another resolution was filed that month, seeking a Senate investigation into China’s installation of missiles on Mischief Reef, Subi Reef, and Fiery Cros Reef in the West Philippine Sea. It was referred to the foreign relations committee.

Many other resolutions were filed, including one seeking an inquiry into the landing of a Chinese military plane in Davao City, but these were not heard by the chamber.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III said it was up to the committee chairperson to hear resolutions – some filed as early as 2016 – referred to them. He said the committees could still work on them. But with the chamber’s hands full with the 2019 budget and other key legislations, and with only a month left in its sessions, it seems unlikely any hearing would be conducted. 

“That will be at the hands of the chairmen of the different committees. As you well know, the Senate works in committees so it is still possible that committees could work double time. We cannot hold committee hearings during sessions but there are gaps, like after session in the evening,” Sotto said in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Asked if the issue will no longer be a priority for the last months of the 17th Congress, Sotto said: “I don't wanna say that it's not a priority. What I can say is there are priorities, and these were [legislation, not investigations].”

Did the committees simply sit down on the probes? Sotto said not necessarily: 

“If the one on top of a committee chairman's agenda is really important, then [these other issues] won't be the chairman's priority,” he said in mixed English and Filipino. 

Another China-related issue that was not discussed was the appointment of Chinese national Michael Yang as President Duterte’s adviser. While Duterte denied it, Malacañang contracts obtained by Rappler showed otherwise.

Solicitor General Jose Calida's government contracts

While opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV pushed through with his hearing on the issue, he was not able to go as deeply as he wanted, owing to the nature and limitation of coverage of his Senate committee on civil service and reorganization. The issue was primarily referred to the blue ribbon committee chaired by Senator Richard Gordon.

Trillanes discussed Calida’s multimillion-peso contracts with the government only in his consideration of Senate Bill 1924, or the proposed amendments to Republic Act 6713 or the Code of Conduct and Ethical Standards for government officials and employees.

Gordon was not keen on probing the issue, as he said his panel was already swamped.

At the same time, Calida sought a temporary restraining order from the Supreme Court to block hearings. The SC has yet to issue one.

Alleged multibillion-peso projects awarded to Bong Go

Trillanes sought a probe into the multi-billion-peso contracts supposedly awarded to firms owned by the father and half-brother of then-special assistant to the President Bong Go in Davao Region. However, it was referred to the committee on rules.

Gordon had also said he did not want his committee to probe the issue against Go, also citing the heavy workload of the panel.

“Ang [haba ng] pila sa blue ribbon, naaawa na ako sa staff ko. Sabi ko, piliin naman natin [ang iimbistigahan]. May karapatan kami pumili…. Nakapila, ang dami eh. Puwedeng sabihin kay Senator Trillanes humanap ka ebidensya mo, ibigay sa NBI (National Bureau of Investigation), hulihin 'yan,” Gordon said in a radio interview.

(There is already a long line in the blue ribbon committee, I already pity my staff. I said we should just choose the issues we will investigate. We have the right to choose.... There are many issues waiting for our action. We can tell Senator Trillanes to just find his own evidence, give them to the NBI, so suspects can be arrested.)

“Ikokonsulta ko pa 'yan. Ako, it’s a plea: konting pasensiya naman dahil di naman namin kaya 'yan. Titingnan 'nyo imbestigasyon sa ibang kumite, isa,” he said.

(I will still consult about it, but for me, just a plea: be a bit more patient because we cannot do it all. Look at other committees, they are only handling one issue at a time.)

Gordon's committee earlier held one hearing on Go's intervention in the frigates deal. (READ: Senators amp up praise for Bong Go during frigates hearing)

Build, Build, Build status

The Senate was also unable to conduct any hearing on the status of the government’s massive infrastructure program called Build, Build, Build.

Some administration and opposition senators filed resolutions seeking an inquiry. The measures were then referred to the Senate economic affairs committee, chaired by Senator Sherwin Gatchalian.

Gatchalian said he was unable to conduct a hearing due to lack of time. He said he would try to hear it after the 2019 budget is passed.

“We had to prioritize other bills, such as the NEDA (National Economic and Development Authority) charter, mobile number portability, and the Authority of the Freeport Area of Bataan (AFAB),” he told Rappler.

With the resumption of session, the Senate would be busy deliberating and approving the 2019 budget, following the delay in the House of Representatives’ transmittal.

Senators’ schedules are also expected to be full, with the upcoming elections, where reelectionists will be campaigning starting February 12. 

Congress sessions resume on January 14 until February 8. Congress then goes on recess from February 9 to May 19 for the 2019 campaign and midterm elections.

It would again resume sessions for the last time from May 20 until June 7, 2019. The new set of senators will come in to complete the 18th Congress on June 30. Unpassed bills and other measures would mostly have to be refiled and start from zero again during the new Congress. – Rappler.com

Camille Elemia

Camille Elemia is a multimedia reporter focusing on media, technology, and disinformation.