West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: What’s next for the Philippines’ transparency push?

Bea Cupin

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View from Manila: What’s next for the Philippines’ transparency push?

INDEPENDENCE DAY. Philippine Coast Guard personnel aboard the BRP Teresa Magbanua hold a flag-raising ceremony while deployed in Sabina Shoal or Escoda Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

Philippine Coast Guard

Philippine government officials say that it’s going to continue. But how?

MANILA, Philippines – In the past week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año made explicit mention of the role of the press in the Philippine government’s transparency initiative to assert the country’s sovereign rights and sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea. 

“A free press, reporting on events as they are, is the hallmark of a true democracy. And we are grateful for our partnership with you. Your work has helped to put the spotlight on what is really happening in the West Philippine Sea,” said Manalo in his keynote speech on June 26, at the East-West Center’s 2024 International Media Conference in Manila.

Days later, during a Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)-hosted thanksgiving dinner aboard the BRP Melchora Aquino, Año told a crowd of mostly journalists, a handful of academics, and select diplomats:  “You are our valued and steady partners in documenting what has been really happening in those waters, and in our desire to just let the truth come out.” 

It wouldn’t be the first time for a government official to emphasize the importance, or praise the role, of a free press in the Philippines’ push to uphold its sovereign rights and sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea. 

But Manalo’s and Año’s words resonate more in the aftermath of a June 17 military resupply mission that resulted in the loss of one soldier’s thumb, was anything but transparent, and exposed cracks in the cohesion of the different personalities and agencies in the Philippine government. 

And so while both Manalo and Año praise the role of the media and the public in battling disinformation, malign influence operations (according to Año), or false narratives (according to Manalo) related to the West Philippine Sea, what’s next for the much-hyped transparency initiative? 

On and off record, Philippine government officials have said that it’s going to continue. But how this would play out is a little more difficult to answer because, apparently, it has yet to be fleshed out. 

Transparency is easy (or it can be) when one has his ducks in a row. But if not, what happens? A June 17 incident at Ayungin Shoal – when information came in trickles and was mostly siloed, even for key officials. It was – and still is – a confusing time for everyone involved, especially the Philippine public. 

It didn’t help that Malacañang flip-flopped in a matter of days, between a press conference with the Executive Secretary then a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro, Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Tess Lazaro, and Año.  

The transparency initiative – a term for the Philippines’ decision to publicize China’s harassment within the Philippines’ own exclusive economic zone (EEZ) – has helped the Philippines’ cause. 

It’s made local and international media’s reporting of the West Philippine Sea richer. Nothing beats seeing events unfold before your very eyes, after all. It has also made it much easier for both a domestic and international audience to rally behind the Philippines – videos and photos, after all, trump claims by talking heads (even those from the Philippines).

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But it’s not the entirety of the Philippine strategy. If anything, transparency has made it more difficult for other aspects of the administration and government to flex their muscle. 

We’ve seen both politicians and diplomats, in public and private, do their darndest to bring tensions down through (sanctioned) talk and diplomacy, despite – and because of – China Coast Guard’s bolder actions in the West Philippine Sea. 

The hope is that as the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea and the National Maritime Council figure out what transparency now means moving forward, they do not make free press a casualty.

Visits to Manila 

Speaking of diplomacy – it’s going to be a busy July ahead. 

July kicks off with a visit from Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs Dato’ Seri Utama Haji Mohamad Bin Haji Hasan’s visit to Manila. The minister, better known as Tok Mat or Mat Hasan, will be meeting with Manalo, then will pay a call on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in Malacañang. 

Minister Mat Hasan’s visit is significant because Malaysia, a co-claimant in the South China Sea, is among the countries with whom the Philippines wants to have a bilateral “code of conduct.” Manila had earlier signed separate maritime cooperation agreements with Hanoi and Bandar Seri Begawan, both during Marcos’ visits to the Southeast Asian neighbors. 

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Manila will also be welcoming this week Archbishop Paul R. Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States of the Holy See (the equivalent of a Foreign Minister). In the Philippines, Gallagher will be meeting Manalo, then attend the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines’ gathering in Bukidnon. 

More are coming. The Philippines and China are set to finally convene the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea in Manila. 

On July 8, Manila will be playing host to the second 2+2 meeting between Japanese and Philippine defense and foreign affairs ministers. – Rappler.com 

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    Will the “transparency initiative” again fall victim to President Marcos Jr.’s or his minions’ flip-flopping?

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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.