For weeks, the Philippines was in chaos as the president, his Cabinet and the political opposition were trading barbs over the country’s position on the South China Sea conflict with Beijing.

The public’s impression was that Rodrigo Duterte was alone in his pro-China position because the opposition supported the Cabinet’s angry rhetoric and demands for China to pull out its hundreds of fishing and militia vessels in the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.

On Monday night, the president decided to end the public confusion, restraining his Cabinet from speaking about the maritime dispute and allowing his spokesman, Harry Roque, to be the government’s sole voice on the issue.

Duterte wanted the Philippines to speak with one voice.

The decision was a wise move because the contradicting statements among officials have been confusing not only the public but those watching from the outside.

It is difficult to decipher what the Philippines really wants when the president praises China and tries hard not to antagonize the world power, on one hand, while his own defense and foreign affairs secretaries have been pushing back.

It is good for the Philippines’s national interest when it has a unified position on an issue that involves the territorial integrity and sovereignty of the country.

However, there are bound to be reservations when information about the issue comes only from the president’s mouthpiece, who lacks credibility.

Roque would only be pushing for the president’s position, disregarding the views of officials who are assertive of the country’s economic rights under the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.

These economic rights were affirmed by the 2016 ruling from the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which nullified China’s excessive and illegal nine-dash-line claim.

It will be a great disservice to the country if Duterte’s pro-China views will be heard from his spokesman, which happened a day after when Roque told a press briefing there was no tension between the Philippines and China.

Roque was right when he said the tension was domestic because of the opposing statements between the president and his critics.

But he failed to mention that the Philippines has been sending navy, coast guard and civilian maritime vessels to challenge China’s “linering” and “swarming” presence in the Spratly Islands and in Scarborough Shoal.

The situation could be similar to the three-month standoff in 2012 between Philippine and China’s coast guard vessels at Scarborough.

The Philippines lost control of the strategic outcrop, about 140 miles west of Subic bay, the former homeport of the US Navy’s 7th Fleet.

But the administration of then-president Benigno Aquino III was deceived into believing both sides would pull out from the shoal to defuse tension under an agreement brokered by the United States.

China reneged on the deal, forcing the Philippines to file an arbitration case in 2013. The Philippines won three years later but Duterte failed to invoke the landmark legal victory, choosing instead a policy of rapprochement.

It would be dangerous if one voice means only the pro-China policy will be heard. It would be tantamount to a surrender of the country’s rights.

From a policy perspective, Duterte’s gag order is flawed.
The president did not prevent the Department of Foreign Affairs from making statements on the maritime dispute. It is the only agency in government mandated to speak for the country.

Under Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. the country is in good hands because he is very zealous in asserting the Philippines’s claims on the South China Sea.

From the middle of 2016 until 2018, the Philippines fell silent to China’s bullying because Locsin’s predecessor, Congressman Alan Peter Cayetano, chose to pursue quiet diplomacy with Beijing, supporting the president’s friendly relations.

In fact, he cautioned Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana from sending the Marines when Chinese vessels seized control of the uninhabited Sandy Cay very near Thitu or Pagasa island in the Spratly.

If Aquino lost control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012, Duterte also lost control of Sandy Cay in 2018 and the Chinese are inching closer to Palawan, sending ships near Sabina Shoal, the closest it could get to the Philippines mainland.

It appears Duterte’s gag order will not work because Locsin and Roque will have opposing views. For instance, Locsin has rebuked Roque twice when he tried making statements that were contrary to DFA’s position.

It will be a disaster if Locsin abandons his strong position and supports the president.

There are already indications, like when he agreed with the president that the 2016 arbitral ruling was just a piece of paper.

The public has the right to know the real situation in the South China Sea dispute and the information should not come from the president’s spokesman. It will be purely propaganda.

Duterte has a bad habit of controlling the narrative in his five years in office. He has not given journalists the chance to challenge his assertions in a news conference.

He loves doing monologues and the past few weeks he was on the defensive because of criticism from the opposition and the public, in general.

Last week, he sought his Cabinet’s support to defend his position on the South China Sea. This week, he did not issue a gag order but sought help from a former senator who willingly supported his policy.

Juan Ponce Enrile returned from oblivion to feed on the leader’s bloated ego, forgetting that in 2012 he backed 100 percent Aquino’s decision to internationalize the issue. Now he has validated Duterte’s bilateral approach.

Duterte’s management style is problematic. He does not listen to constructive criticism. He shuts out the opposition and listens only to what he wants to hear from his own sycophants.

Past presidents, like Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos and even Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, have convened the National Security Council to resolve international and domestic crises.

They get informed and they gather intelligent views from both the administration and opposition on how to deal with the situation, allowing these presidents to make decisions.

But Duterte would have none of that. Although he said he could accept criticism, his behavior and attitude suggested otherwise.

Perhaps, Duterte wants to follow China’s model of governance. China’s Communist Party is the dominant voice in the country. It wants everyone to toe the line.

But the Philippines is a democracy where ideas and opinions are freely exchanged and, often, debated. A consensus is often reached at the end.

Duterte’s gag order is an attempt to change how things are done in the country since Ferdinand Marcos’ dictatorship ended in 1986.

Duterte wants to muzzle free speech, the free press and freedom of expression and now he wants everyone to hear and believe a single voice — his own agenda and reasoning.