Judgment Call

[Judgment Call] Philippine seas and a healthy dose of transparency 

Bea Cupin

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[Judgment Call] Philippine seas and a healthy dose of transparency 
Coverage of sovereignty issues cannot be whittled down to a ‘we said, Xi said’ narrative

Extracting quick and timely on-the-record answers from most diplomats is an exercise in hope. Answers, should they come, are seldom quick and rarely timely. But you try anyway. 

However, hoping for quick, timely, and responsive answers from the Chinese embassy in Manila when diplomatic ties are at a considerable low is an exercise in patience. Sometimes you ask, and the answers, if they do come, come a week or weeks later. Sometimes you ask, and get a canned response that neither answers your question or gets to the point. 

Hello, my name is Bea Cupin and, since late last year, I’ve had the privilege of covering defense and diplomacy for Rappler. 

This week, I’ve been assigned the task of explaining how we wade through the murky waters of reporting on the latest claim of the Chinese embassy in Manila – that it allegedly has an alleged recording of an alleged phone call between a “Chinese diplomat” and Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, commander of the Western Command in Palawan. In this alleged call, he allegedly confirmed the existence of a new agreement that basically acceded to China’s wishes in Ayungin Shoal. 

I realize that that’s a lot of allegations. 

In my decade as a news reporter, I’ve had to learn the value and virtue of patience. I have also learned that in some cases – whether in government, entertainment, or diplomacy – the long wait for an answer in itself is also the story. 

There has emerged an almost pattern, if you will, in the way Chinese diplomats in the Philippines release information. They are cycles of unofficial but sanctioned releases that then become the official line, or of strip-teases that introduce a term or concept first before explaining what it’s even about. 

Take their “new model” claim, for instance:

  • On April 12, they first mentioned a so-called new model in a press release. Journalists asked: What are its details? 
  • On April 18, the embassy said in a statement that it referred to “rounds of serious communications with the Philippine military.” Journalists asked: Again, what are the details of this supposed model? Who in the military did they speak to? 
  • On May 4, the embassy, again in a statement, said it had spoken to the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command (Wescom). Who in Wescom? They did not say. 
  • On May 7, Chinese embassy officials who spoke on background released alleged proof of the agreement in a supposed recording of a phone call with Wescom chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos. Journalists asked: Will you be releasing the supposed phone call officially?  

It does not help that the Philippines has been releasing information in increments, too. 

  • On May 5, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said they didn’t know of a new model, and that the Philippines didn’t enter into any agreement that would compromise its entitlements and claims, especially in Ayungin Shoal.
  • On May 7, the DFA issued another statement to “emphasize” that only President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. could okay any agreement on the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea, and that “no Cabinet-level official of the Marcos administration has agreed to any Chinese proposal” on the shoal. 

It can be a dizzying thing to process, even as these statements and allegations don’t always come so swiftly. But here are some things I keep in mind: 

The “new model” issue – or any other issue that concerns something as serious as the Philippines’ sovereign rights and sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea – cannot be whittled down to a “we said, Xi said” narrative. 

It’s shortsighted to think that Filipino reporters covering tensions and disputes in the West Philippine Sea should be blindly nationalistic or be biased for Philippine officials. 

Our bias is for the truth and our service to a nation that’s tired of Chinese bullying in the West Philippine Sea, weary from six years under an administration that forced a “pivot” to Beijing, and rightfully skeptical of any incumbent official’s grand promises.   

So, in parsing through the phone call leak that wasn’t quite, here’s what we considered: 

Threatening to – and then actually releasing to select journalists – a purported phone call recording between a Philippine general and Chinese diplomat is in itself an escalation of tensions and a new low in bilateral ties. The threat and the follow-through deserves to be reported on. 

Wire-tapping is illegal in the Philippines. But is that even the point? 

How are our officials reacting to the latest controversy? The military consistently said it refused to even acknowledge the issue because, officers said, they couldn’t be sure about its authenticity. Then their top defense and security bosses shifted the discussion to Philippine laws that could have been broken, assuming the recording existed. Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año even suggested the expulsion of diplomats. It does not help that Carlos has gone on leave, and the military can’t say when he’s coming back.

A major aspect of the Philippines’ new-found vigor in defending its entitlements and claims in the West Philippine Sea, under the Marcos administration, is transparency and the truth that it generates. 

And as important as the release of dramatic and disturbing videos and photos from Philippine Coast Guard-hosted trips to the West Philippine Sea is Philippine officials’ willingness to put their money where their mouths are – and take a healthy dose of transparency themselves. – 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.