Senator Osmeña grills PH envoy to China, warns of disaster
Exasperation reigned at the confirmation hearing of the country’s ambassador to China on Wednesday after it became apparent that his only qualification is his closeness to President Benigno Aquino III’s family.
Domingo Lee, who claims to be the godson of the President’s grandfather, Benigno Aquino Sr., could not even enumerate the three “pillars” of Philippine diplomacy before the Commission on Appointments (CA), causing Sen. Sergio Osmeña III, a member of the powerful body, to ask the President to withdraw the envoy’s nomination.
“I can’t even quantify the danger to the Filipino people in case he gets confirmed,” an irritated Osmeña told reporters after the hearing.
“I am appealing to the President to withdraw his nomination because it’s not fair to the Filipino people. It looks like personal friendship has overridden the national interest here and I think this is going a bit too far,” he added.
During the confirmation hearing, Lee said he was planning to convince his “many friends in high positions in China” to help “change the status” of illegal Filipino workers in the mainland.
Joseph Estrada’s interpreter
But when asked about his previous experience in Chinese diplomacy, Lee said he only acted as interpreter for then President Joseph “Erap” Estrada during a business junket.
Some quarters have questioned Lee’s political (as opposed to career) appointment as ambassador to China, claiming that his closeness to the Aquino family appears to be the sole driving factor behind it.
Lee is reportedly an honorary president of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry. The group was once quoted as saying it was giving him “full support” for his “deep understanding of Chinese culture.”
At the confirmation hearing, Osmeña asked Lee about the difference between the “South China Sea” and “West Philippine Sea.” The envoy replied: “In the eyes of China, because they are in China, they call it South China Sea. We are in the Philippines so we call it West Philippines.”
Osmeña reminded Lee that the reference of West Philippine Sea “is a recent invention.”
The senator then asked, “What are the three pillars of Philippine diplomacy since the time of (former Foreign Secretary) Alberto Romulo?”
“I’m not concerned,” Lee replied.
“You have your notes. Just read them,” Osmeña chided Lee in Filipino.
According to the Department of Foreign Affairs, the pillars are:
Preservation and enhancement of national security.
Promotion and attainment of economic security.
Protection and promotion of the welfare and interest of all Filipinos overseas.
Osmeña continued: “This is the first time you’ve heard of it. Did you not receive a briefing naturally given to all ambassadors?”
“I took six months already,” Lee said, apparently referring to the time he had already spent in his post.
“What is the single most difficult issue in our relations with China right now,” the senator asked.
“The issue of Spartly (not a typo error), promoting relations, tourism, investment, trade and so many others,” Lee answered.
At some point, Osmeña reminded Lee that as a representative of Filipinos in the Chinese mainland, “you have to exert efforts to make it an official policy that the workers would be accepted and granted working visas in the same way we have accepted many, many Chinese workers and immigrants here (in the Philippines).”
“I have previous experience,” Lee assured Osmeña. “Given the chance I can reach the top level, I have many friends in high positions in China.”
“So your friendship would work for the benefit of the people?” Osmeña asked.
“I can help change the status … there are possibilities,” Lee said.
The senator later asked why Lee thought he deserved the Beijing portfolio.
“I think I have the competence,” the ambassador replied.
No interest in politics
“You have not proven any particular field of competence in the field of diplomacy,” Osmeña noted.
“Allowing some overstaying Chinese to remain in the Philippines, that’s all you’ve done. That cannot qualify you to … This is going to be the most crucial diplomatic post in the next 20 years,” the senator groaned.
“But I am not interested in politics,” Lee noted.
“Mr. Ambassador, our relations with China is po-li-ti-cal,” Osmeña shot back.
“I do not meddle with internal political (not a typo error),” Lee explained.
Asked if he had been part of “any diplomatic mission to China,” Lee said he once acted as interpreter for Estrada. “I was part of a business delegation during the time of President Erap.”
“But senators and congressmen are also invited to junkets,” Osmeña noted.
“Sorry, but I do not participate in such kind of affairs,” Lee retorted.
“So what did you accomplish?” the senator inquired.
“I was beside (Estrada) doing interpretation. He needs me, I was telling him what to do,” Lee said.
Global Times report
The senator then pulled out a summary of a report from Global Times, a China-based newspaper which, he said, was considered the official mouthpiece of the Chinese government.
“It says here that ‘the time to use force has arrived in the South China Sea; let’s wage war on the Philippines and Vietnam to prevent more wars.’ The report called the two countries as ‘the noisiest troublemakers’ and that to wage war against us would ‘achieve the effect of killing one chicken to scare off the monkeys.’ I‘m bothered,” Osmeña said.
“I don’t have this article,” Lee commented.
“Mr. Ambassador, you’re supposed to protect our interests! You don’t seem to care that these are things that are happening. You’re totally and blissfully ignorant of it! We’re not going to confirm you! The excuses you’re giving are simply unacceptable,” Osmeña fumed.
The senator revealed before his colleagues in the 24-member appointments body that about two months back, Lee requested that he be allowed to pay a courtesy visit to Osmeña.
“Remember what I advised you? Study well and study hard because I will be asking you a lot of questions to test your fitness and competence and you said you would. Is this the best thing you can do,” the senator challenged Lee.
‘I’ll try my best’
“Nobody’s perfect,” the ambassador said. “But I’ll try my best to make things better, I swear to that.”
“If that’s your best, I’ll be very scared to send you to Beijing. You don’t seem to be scared of what’s happening,” the senator noted.
“Excuse me,” Lee butted in. “Kung ’di ko kaya, hindi ko tatanggapin. Maraming alam ko hindi kailangan sa salita (If I can’t do it, I won’t accept it. I know many things that need no words),” he added in pidgin Filipino.
“I think we can arrive at peaceful solution. Actually we are not going to war yet. There is only a writer (who did that piece),” Lee said.
“You cannot say that’s just the work of a newspaper writer,” Osmeña said. “Unfortunately, the Global Times is known as the official Chinese Communist Party newspaper. This is not just a communist writer. It is recognized as official, as a very important signal from the Chinese Communist Party. You cannot say that’s nothing,” he explained.
After the hearing, Osmeña told reporters that the President must appoint someone more knowledgeable of diplomatic affairs to the post in China.
“Diplomacy is a very sophisticated science where you need years and years of training to be able to deal with the most sensitive subjects. Eh, wala siyang alam (Lee doesn’t know anything),” he complained.
A magnanimous Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile surmised that Lee was probably being careful in making statements about China given the sensitive state of the Philippines relations with the world power.
“To be fair to (Lee), since he’s going to be posted (in China), he’s being very careful lest he makes a statement that would exacerbate his position. He cannot make a statement that might be misinterpreted,” Enrile told reporters.
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, chair of the CA foreign relations committee, evaded questions about whether Lee’s confirmation as ambassador to China would be jeopardized by this episode.
“It’s just one senator who has to satisfy his curiosity. All questions have been answered by the person involved,” she said.