PH-China ruling: Why Yasay wasn’t smiling

Paterno Esmaquel II
PH-China ruling: Why Yasay wasn’t smiling
Did the government of President Rodrigo Duterte want to water down Manila’s victory to appease Beijing?

Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr drew flak for delivering what critics called a bland statement on the Philippines’ historic victory against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

It didn’t help that Yasay wasn’t smiling throughout his 3-minute media briefing on Tuesday, July 12. 

In this briefing, Yasay said the Philippines “welcomes” the decision of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, to strike down China’s expansive claim over the West Philippine Sea. 

Yasay refused to entertain questions because he had an “important meeting.” Journalists groaned as Yasay left the DFA press office, where a microphone was already seen in the reporters’ area minutes before Yasay’s briefing. 

Yasay’s statement and his somber delivery prompted the question: Did the new government want to water down Manila’s victory to appease Beijing? 

Rappler learned that actually, Yasay’s statement was mostly a carryover from the Department of Foreign Affairs under then president Benigno Aquino III.

An informed source told Rappler that Yasay’s statement on Tuesday – except for one line – was approved under the leadership of then Foreign Secretary Jose Rene Almendras. 

Almendras was one of Aquino’s most trusted men.

The draft statement on the Philippines’ victory was ready even before June 30, when Aquino stepped down from office.

Experts earlier said the tribunal could release its ruling by June 30.

Yasay: ‘We cannot gloat’

When President Rodrigo Duterte took over from Aquino and Yasay from Almendras, the draft statement on the Philippines’ victory was reportedly submitted to Duterte and Yasay for approval.

The Duterte administration inserted one line, according to Rappler’s source: “In the meantime, we call on all those concerned to exercise restraint and sobriety.”

Last week, another insider close to the Duterte camp told Rappler that in informal meetings between some of Duterte’s advisers and Chinese officials, assurances were made that the Philippine government would not “gloat” over the legal victory.

The source said the Duterte administration wanted to “temper” the celebratory environment after the ruling.

This is consistent with Duterte’s position not to “flaunt” the tribunal’s ruling if the Philippines wins. Duterte said this as early as June 30, during his first Cabinet meeting.

Yasay, for his part, stressed the need to be “circumspect,” when sought for reaction to criticisms that he looked gloomy on Tuesday.

Yasay told journalists on Wednesday: “I’ve been used to these criticisms from media. If I smile, they say why am I smiling?’ If I don’t smile they say why am I not smiling?”

“But as I’ve said, we have to be circumspect and restrained in our reaction. We cannot gloat about our triumphs,” Yasay said. –

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Paterno 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