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June 29, 2017

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Few options remain for Manila in territory row

MANILA -- In the ongoing dispute with the new superpower over competing territorial claims, the Philippines finds itself between the devil and the South China Sea. No simple solution to the controversy appears on the horizon, and the country has recourse to only a few options.

But some options are better than others. I would like to make the case that, contrary to the usual speculative criticism, the Philippines has actually made the best of a bad situation. I remain worried that, in the end, and as a Chinese journalist I met last month on his way to New York argued persuasively, the current shape of the conflict would only strengthen the all-too-visible hand of the People's Liberation Army. But what, really, can we do? The country's options are limited.

Let me begin by first engaging the views of Boying Pimentel-friend, author and San Francisco-based journalist. In his July 9 column for's popular Global Nation section, Boying makes a larger point, or rather works under an assumption, that I completely agree with, about the hard-liners gaining the most from any protracted dispute. But almost everything else in "How Malacanang (Philippine Palace) is Making It So Easy for Beijing" I found problematic.

The problems begin with the lead, which labor under the burden of two false facts and one contentious interpretation.

Boying writes: "It didn't take long for President Benigno Aquino III to realize that appearing to brag about having the U.S. send planes to spy on the Chinese military in the disputed territories was a bad idea." But as far as I can tell, President Aquino has not in fact reached such a realization. The column's assertion is a statement of fact that has no basis in reality (at least, I cannot find it). I can think of no inside source who would characterize Aquino's post-statement behavior as mistaken or chastened. And if this change of heart did not happen, then the factual basis promised by the assertion that "it didn't take long" for the president to realize his mistake was also imagined.

The column does attempt to provide a justification for its sweeping lead. Between the third and sixth paragraphs, Boying argues that Aquino walked back his spy plane comment. "Aquino tells Reuters that his government 'might be requesting overflights' by the U.S. using special surveillance planes," the third paragraph begins. Three paragraphs later, we read: "Finally, Aquino backtracks. He tells Agence France Presse that he didn't really say that Manila had asked for the spy planes. 'If you will go through the transcript of the interview, (you'll find that) I said, We might.'"

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