18nov22-Key question: Can we trust Duterte?

POSTSCRIPT / November 22, 2018 / Thursday

Key question: Can we trust Duterte?

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

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WE must thank China President Xi Jinping for being with us for two days, if only because his state visit helped open up and clarify some sticky points regarding Philippines-China relations.

Xi’s visit Nov. 20-21 brought to the fore these points:

* Most Filipinos tend to be swayed by the independent media when processing complicated China questions that the government covers up or neglects to explain in understandable terms.

* Duterte loyalists who are unable or unwilling to argue their way out of the confusion just stick to what the President says. Those who have lost faith in him or have never been his followers go the other way. The numbers have been shifting.

* A growing number of Filipinos appear to be becoming less trusting of the President, and seem likely to go with the drift of critical media reporting on his mishandling of China issues and gut domestic questions.

* People-to-people dealings between Filipinos and Chinese, such as in tourism and trade, differ from government-to-government relations. Some political policies hamper citizens’ desire to coexist and work in harmony with other people.

* Aggressive moves, such as China’s expansionism in Philippine maritime areas, have clouded Filipinos’ view of official China, with negative perceptions threatening to stain Filipinos’ attitude toward Chinese. This is unfortunate.

* To many neutral or weary observers, such weighty questions as to whether or not there should be joint Philippines-China exploration of mineral resources in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone can be left to the President or the Supreme Court to decide.

Policy questions imbued with public interest can be submitted to a referendum or attached as an initiative during an election, but that is time-consuming and costly. On the other hand, poll surveys are unofficial and merely persuasive.

Now if only foreign relations could be entrusted wholly, as is the practice, to the wise judgment of the President….

But supposed Duterte proves not equal to the task or is distracted from the guiding light of national interest — then succeeding administrations and future generations will pay very dearly for the perfidy.

The latest survey of the Social Weather Stations, conducted Sept. 15-23 but whose results were released only on the eve of the Xi visit, showed that eight out of every 10 Filipinos are opposed to Duterte’s not acting against China’s intrusion in the West Philippine Sea.

In the survey, respondents consisting of 1,500 adults nationwide expressed “little trust” in China. Only 27 percent said they have “much trust” in China, while 43 percent have little trust, for a net trust score of negative 16.

 Manila visit should open Xi’s eyes

ONE wishes President Xi noticed during his visit the dwindling trust that his country enjoys among Filipinos, so he could make timely adjustments instead of expecting Duterte and Filipinos to do the adjusting.

He or his envoy and other roving eyes must note China’s plunge in surveys, the street protests, and the crescendo of negative posts in social media and criticisms in mass media that public relations spending failed to dampen.

In the same survey, 65 percent of respondents said they were aware of the Chinese coast guard’s forcing local fishermen to turn over their catch. Such incidents had been reported at the Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, a traditional Filipino fishing ground off Zambales.

On this point, Xi should demonstrate that, indeed, he is a friend of Duterte as claimed by the latter. On the contrary, China has tightened its hold on Panatag despite the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague that no country owns the shoal.

In the face of his countrymen’s impatience, Duterte has promised to invoke the PCA ruling “at the right time.” But with time running out on him, he recently tripped and recklessly recognized China’s possession of disputed WPS areas.

The last poll showed 84 percent of Filipinos (compared to 81 percent in June) saying the government should not allow China to reclaim and militarize isles, reefs and other features of the Philippine EEZ.

Objecting to Chinese aggression, 86 percent (compared to 80 percent in June) of the respondents said the Philippines should strengthen its armed forces, especially the Navy.

Some 71 percent (compared to 74 percent in June) said the Philippines should raise its dispute with China before international organizations, such as the United Nations and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, for a peaceful resolution.

The Aquino administration already did, winning a favorable award from the PCA on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, but Duterte chose not to play that card while awaiting delivery of Xi’s promise of $24 billion in Chinese investments, loans and aid.

Sucked deeper into the waiting game, Duterte went ahead Tuesday with the signing of a memorandum of understanding (MOU) on joint oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea. It was one of 29 documents signed during Xi’s visit.

As we write this, no official copy of the MOU has been released so it cannot be scrutinized by the public. A number of legal experts have said, however, that Duterte’s intention to share mineral resources with a foreign entity was unconstitutional.

An MOU is a notch lower than a memorandum of agreement (MOA). If the joint exploration bears fruit, it could result in another agreement on the exploitation of the resources found.

Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay, a member of the Philippine team that won the favorable PCA ruling at The Hague, said: “Our victory meant we could uphold our economic sovereignty and have full control over the resources in that area… A joint agreement with China is essentially a waiver of the decision. For Duterte to bargain this away… is a complete betrayal of the trust that the Filipino people gave him in May 2016.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 22, 2018. Follow the author on Twitter as @FDPascual.

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