Philippines silently files note verbale against China

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – For the first time in months, the Philippines silently filed a note verbale against China over the latter's recent moves in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

Rappler learned from at least 3 informed sources that this note verbale, or diplomatic note, contained a list of incidents in the West Philippine Sea. 

The Philippines reportedly handed this note verbale to China on Saturday, May 26.

Insiders said the note verbale included the installation of missiles in the Spratly Islands. It also covered a Chinese navy chopper's alleged harassment of a Philippine Navy rubber boat on May 11, when the Philippines was resupplying its troops in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

On the same day that the note verbale was issued, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano met with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua. Cayetano himself said this meeting took place on Saturday.

Two days later, Cayetano delivered a 37-minute speech at the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), where he identified "red lines" that China shouldn't cross. He said China, for example, should not harass Filipino soldiers on resupply missions. 

Also on Monday, May 28, Cayetano and Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Santa Romana met with President Rodrigo Duterte. The meeting with Duterte was, among other things, "to propose two more systems to allow immediate action" in the West Philippine Sea.

China's protest vs Philippines

In a message to reporters Thursday afternoon, May 31, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque confirmed that the Philippines indeed filed a diplomatic note against China. Roque did not give additional details.

Saturday's note verbale comes as the Philippines refuses to publicize its diplomatic protests against China. Manila, which is seeking economic benefits, prefers quiet talks with Beijing.

Diplomatic protests can come in the form of a note verbale, an informal third-person note used for a range of purposes.

China also sent the Philippines a note verbale before, Rappler sources said.

China handed its note verbale against the Philippines after their second bilateral consultation mechanism (BCM) meeting on February 13. 

China's note verbale covered actions routinely performed by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea, Rappler learned. 

China, too, did not publicize this diplomatic note against the Philippines.

Cayetano: '50-100' diplomatic protests filed

In a congressional hearing on Wednesday, May 30, Cayetano pointed out that the Philippines has filed 50 to 100 diplomatic protests against China over the past two years. 

He said not all of these diplomatic protests, however, came in the form of a note verbale. 

He said a diplomatic protest can come in different forms, such as a list of issues raised in the BCM, and a message by Philippine President Duterte to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Cayetano said: "People think that a protest has a specific form. When the President tells President Xi, 'That is mine and don't get the oil,' that's a protest. When we file a note verbale, that's a protest. When we have a BCM and we list down everything, that's a protest. If we list down 10 things, then we protest 10 things."

Turning to a congressman to make a point, he said, "So I could go up to you now and say, Congressman, pasensya ka na (I beg your pardon), but I disagree with you. That is a protest. If you were a different country, that was a diplomatic protest already."

As for the May 11 incident in Ayungin Shoal, Cayetano confirmed in Wednesday's hearing: "We filed a protest regarding that. We had a meeting. The President had strong instructions."

He did not specify the form of protest the Philippines made. 

"Because we did it quietly, we're solving it," he said, noting that he would tell lawmakers more in an executive session.

He talked about the Ayungin Shoal incident only after Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano raised it in Wednesday's hearing. 

Doing it 'the Duterte way'

Experts earlier criticized the Duterte administration for refusing to publicize its diplomatic protests against China. 

Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said failure to file a diplomatic protest is "acquiescing to China's claim without China firing a single shot."

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario backed Carpio's proposal to file a diplomatic protest against China.  

Cayetano in Wednesday's hearing defended the Duterte administration's approach toward China.

He contrasted this to the approach of former president Benigno Aquino III, Del Rosario, and Carpio, which he said was "shouting at each other" through the media.

"We're changing the norms. But we're not doing it the Aquino way, or the Del Rosario or Carpio or whatever-you-want-to-call-it way, na through the media at sigawan (that is through the media and is a shouting match)," Cayetano said in Wednesday's hearing.

"We're doing it the Duterte way, which is traditional building of trust through diplomacy," said Cayetano, who was Duterte's running mate in 2016. 

In his speech at the DFA on Monday, Cayetano also took a swipe at "those who keep saying, 'File a protest, file a protest.'"

"At the right time, we will prove you wrong because nothing is secret forever," Cayetano said.

"When we declassify all of this, once we have achieved our purposes in the future, you will see that hindi nagkulang ang DFA sa pagpa-file ng kung anumang diplomatic action (the DFA was not remiss in filing whatever diplomatic action), note verbale, verbal protest, protest that is written, demarche, discussions," he added.

Alejano, who also attended the hearing, criticized Cayetano's stance on diplomatic protests.

"Secretary Cayetano speaks as if he is not receiving verified information on various cases of harassment by Chinese forces against our own troops and fishermen. If I myself was able to know that the government already has detailed and verified information regarding actions of China in the West Philippine Sea, what more the foreign affairs secretary?" Alejano said.

"Secretary Cayetano should not feign ignorance and act clueless as if his office is not receiving pertinent information," Alejano added. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished 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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