Good faith is usually defined as honesty and sincerity – the absence of any desire to act maliciously or with fraudulence towards others.
“Good faith” was the operative phrase used by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s spokesperson Harry Roque when asked recently about the president’s position following a recent provocative posting by China as reported by Reuters.
On its National Marine Data and Information Service website, China confirmed for the first time that it had “reasonably” expanded its islands in the South China Sea as part of its defence and military presence in the area, as well as to supposedly provide the islands’ inhabitants with a more stable supply of water and power.
Sought for comment, Roque said: “We don’t know where these works are. We continue to rely on China’s good faith. Location is material since we do not have claims on all the islands and waters in the disputed area.”
This wasn’t the first time Roque had leaned on the phrase to explain China’s behaviour in the disputed area and its possible implications on Philippine national security.
“Good faith”, in fact, appears to have become the default line of the Duterte administration when it comes to the China question.
In November, following yet another report on China’s launch of a massive ship called the “magic island maker” designed to further ramp up its reclamation activities in the region, Roque trotted out the same line: “The president recognises the principle of good faith in international relations. China has told the president they do not intend to reclaim Scarborough, and we leave it at that.”
But good faith can only work and serve as the basis of a mutually satisfactory relationship if both parties are sincere and transparent about their intentions.
In this case, it has long been apparent that China is anything but. Its actions toward the Philippines ever since it began claiming islands in the South China Sea that the Philippines has long claimed and are within its exclusive economic zone would betray the essential malice and bad faith that have undergirded China’s expansionist policy in the region.
Simply put, China has used its political and military muscle as a rising superpower to bully its neighbours over these islands, in the face of world opinion against such tension-inciting behaviour.
Beijing’s admission that it has “reasonably” enhanced its presence with expanded and fortified island facilities in the region comes a mere month after the Association of Southeast Asian Nations – five of whose members dispute China’s territorial claims – agreed to start negotiations with its giant neighbour on a long-delayed code of conduct in the South China Sea.
That China feels confident about confirming now what it has long denied, speaks of the brutal truth of the fait accompli it has managed to impose on the region by building and reclaiming islands despite international condemnation, and despite even the Philippines’ decisive win in the arbitral tribunal in The Hague.
Worse, by acting in this manner and essentially altering the status quo in its favour, China has made a mockery of the good faith it expects other countries to bring to the table for the strictly bilateral negotiations that, it insists, are the only option it would consider to resolve the matter.
Whatever code of conduct that Asean and China manage to come up with would be hollow if China decides to act unilaterally every time, as it does now.
And any acquiescent behaviour by the countries it believes are under its thumb will only further empower its aggressive conduct.
There is scant basis in such an environment for mutually satisfactory relations based on fairness and transparency, much less the notion of a country treating and respecting another as a coequal.
Filipinos are not dumb about this travesty; president’s rote “good faith” invocation at every instance of China’s misbehaviour is grating for obsequiousness and lack of self-respect.