West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: Kicking diplomats out won’t solve the West Philippine Sea problem 

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: Kicking diplomats out won’t solve the West Philippine Sea problem 

Former commander of the Western Command (Wescom) Alberto Carlos testifies during the senate public hearing on an alleged wiretapping incident by the Chinese embassy, on May 22, 2024.

Bibo Nueva España/Senate PRIB

Such is the paradox that while China makes bilateral ties harder to maintain, it becomes more important for the Philippines to make sure that lines remain open

MANILA, Philippines –  As a Senate panel grilled Bamban Mayor Alice Guo last week about her curious life, another committee interrogated Filipino diplomats over what it would take for the Philippines to expel a Chinese diplomat following an alleged wiretapping of his phone call with a military general. 

Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, the dismissed chief of the military’s Western Command, admitted that the call took place on January 3, 2024, and said he did not know the call was being recorded (therefore, it was a case of illegal wiretapping). 

While saying he would disclose details of the phone call only in an executive session, Carlos denied making the so-called “new model” deal that China insists now governs Ayungin Shoal. 

And so the Senate committee on national defense’s first public hearing on the controversial phone conversation, as promised, focused not only on the apparent wiretapping case but its consequences. 

More pointedly, this: would, should, and how would the Philippines possibly expel Chinese diplomats involved in the wiretapping case?

Senator Francis Tolentino, who filed the resolution that led to the hearing, asked a series of questions: 

  1. Has something like this happened before? (No, it has not.) 
  2. Has the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) summoned the Chinese ambassador over the wiretapping incident? (No, it has not – because it was only in the hearing that Carlos confirmed the phone call happened and that he didn’t know it was being recorded.) 
  3. Does the DFA know about “secret expulsions,” as the US did to China in 2019? (The DFA knows about it, but it has not been done in the Philippines.)
  4. And, ultimately: How is a diplomat expelled from the Philippines? 

Secretary Gilberto Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año had earlier called on the DFA to probe the alleged wiretapping incident (including the embassy’s apparent threats to make the recording public) and to check if China’s diplomats had broken Philippine laws. If they did, the country’s top defense and security officials argued, it could be grounds to kick them out. 

Assistant Secretary Aileen Mendiola-Rau of the DFA’s Office of the Asian and Pacific Affairs laid it out clearly: diplomats enjoy immunity, but the DFA can request an embassy to waive those same immunities if one of its diplomats faced a case in the Philippines. 

There’s also a simpler and more quiet route: the DFA could just speak to an ambassador and a diplomat facing a case (or controversy) could leave of their own volition. 

In 2012, when a Panamanian diplomat was accused of rape, the DFA asked Panama’s embassy to waive Erick Shcks’s immunity. They declined and Shcks, who still enjoyed immunity, left the Philippines scott-free even after the DFA declared him persona non grata (unwanted person). That case triggered outrage in the Philippines, including in the halls of the Senate.

Thus far, in the case of the Chinese embassy’s alleged wiretapping, no law enforcement agency has come forward with even preliminary results of any investigation. Calls for the DFA to probe the case are headed nowhere; it’s not for the department to conduct what’s essentially a criminal investigation, after all. 

Kicking a diplomat out from their post can be complicated. In an ideal world, it requires due process – in the form of legal proceedings or discussions between an embassy and the host foreign ministry, for instance. 

But the reality is, kicking envoys out is as much a political move as it is a diplomacy – or even a law enforcement issue.

If, say, the Philippines expelled the diplomat in question, Colonel Li, what happens next? How China would answer back depends on them, of course, but it could mean the expulsion of a similar Philippine envoy from Beijing. It could mean the expulsion of even more. 

Whatever version of the future presents itself, one thing is certain: a possible back-and-forth by kicking out diplomats, on top of a word war through official and unofficial media releases (mostly by the Chinese side), will not help ease tensions in the West Philippine Sea. 

The Chinese embassy’s clumsy release of the recording and a transcript to select Philippine media only served to make tensions worse. Its threat to make the recording public made tensions even worse. 

Beijing’s doing other things to make tensions worse, too – there’s a China Coast Guard “regulation” that would allow them to arrest who they deem as trespassers in what they decide is Chinese waters. There’s also a unilateral fishing ban in parts of the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea (paladesisyon, in internet speak). 

And such is the paradox that while China makes bilateral ties harder to maintain, it becomes more important for the Philippines to make sure that lines remain open. 

Vice Admiral Carlos himself said he picked up the phone and engaged in conversation because he was looking for ways to de-escalate tensions in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), where the rusty BRP Sierra Madre stands proud.

Carlos’s final few words in the hearing stood out the most. He was asked if he was upset at Beijing’s defense attaché for recording and then leaking the conversation.

“No, sir. It’s part of the game,” answered the general. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.