POSTSCRIPT / April 30, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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China wasn’t there, but ruled the summit

THE SUMMIT meeting of the 10 leaders of the Association of Southeast Nations held this week in Manila was dominated by a non-member that was not even in the conference hall.

Through President Rodrigo Duterte, the summit chair, China succeeded in throwing into the dustbin the 2016 award by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague declaring as a violation of international law its claim over virtually the entire South China Sea.

The arbitral ruling on SCS issues has been the focus of public speculation, yet there was no mention of it in the summary statement issued yesterday by Mr. Duterte as chair.

China captured the ASEAN summit by working quietly well in advance of the proceedings in Manila, using as capital the multimillion-dollar investments and loans it had promised Mr. Duterte.

Many Filipinos have expressed concern over China’s grabbing resource-rich and strategic areas in the West Philippine Sea, building them up and militarizing the artificial islands that are now a threat to the peace and security of the region.

But President Duterte refused to bring up the PCA award at the summit. It seemed to him that whatever the common tao thought had no bearing on the agenda, the debate and the final communique of the summit.

What’s the point? he had asked, stressing that there was nothing anyway that the Philippines could do to make China give up the isles, reefs, shoals and other maritime features it had taken over in the Exclusive Economic Zone of the Philippines.

Mr. Duterte refused to see that his being the ASEAN chair gave the Philippines an opportunity to call attention in a diplomatic way to the PCA award and to open an amicable discussion of similar territorial disputes with China of such neighbors as Malaysia, Brunei and Vietnam.

(China disdained facing an ASEAN common front in resolving territorial disputes, apparently on the belief that it can handle more effectively bilateral negotiations. It looks like another resort to the divide and rule tactic.)

• Why is Duterte scared of upsetting Xi?

APPARENTLY, Mr. Duterte does not want to antagonize China at this early stage of their blooming relationship, at this point when Beijing has not yet made substantial delivery of its promised package of investments and loans.

To forestall public disappointment in his limp stance on citing the PCA award, he promised to bring it up, not now, but at some hazy future time.

But when is that? When it is already too late because by that time China would have cemented its occupation and possession of the features it has grabbed in the Exclusive Economic Zones of its neighbors?

When all is lost, of what value will be the Code of Conduct that Mr. Duterte wanted to discuss outside the context of China’s aggressive expansionism and the relevant PCA ruling?

But what was the point of going to the arbitral court under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea if we would just waste the favorable decision won? Or is Mr. Duterte refusing to invoke it because it was filed and won by his predecessor President Noynoy Aquino?

At another time, he rationalized his hesitation to play The Hague card by pointing out that war is not an option as the Philippines, the petitioner and beneficiary of the arbitral award, is a pygmy compared to China.

His numerical comparison has basis considering that China is 9.6 million square kilometers in area, and has a population of 1.4 billion and a gross domestic product of $10.87 trillion.

The issues are muddied by his view that a discussion of territorial disputes is something that could lead to war, a confrontation that would pit a neighbor against another — in the same way that police raiders checking on reported drug abuse invariably end up killing somebody.

“You want us to go to war?” sounds like a shut-out question calculated to stop the debate.

• Why view situations in terms of war?

WHY jump to the conclusion that if the Philippines calls attention to the PCA ruling, its intention is to confront or challenge China? Only a war-monger of a chair submitting to the summit the pertinent information on the PCA award would think that way.

President Duterte still has to explain satisfactorily to the nation why he was so scared to bring up in the ASEAN summit the PCA ruling slapping down China’s expansionism. What hold does Beijing has on him?

The Philippines is not necessarily asking for ASEAN censure or even collegial support in its dispute with China. It could happen that the leaders assembled may just note the information offered and put it aside for future discussion.

It was rather odd for the Philippines — the petitioner at The Hague and the primary beneficiary of the generally favorable ruling — to hesitate mentioning the facts to fellow ASEAN members, some of which are similarly locked in territorial disputes with China.

And then, as we asked earlier, why should a responsible leader always think in terms of warlike intentions and confrontation? Or are such dire warnings of war or possible violence merely a coverup for something basically wrong with his thought process?

It will be another 10 years before the Philippines will again chair the ASEAN summit. By that time, some parts of the Philippines may have been annexed by a foreign power – because we have not been resolute enough in defending our patrimony from latter-day colonizers aided by their Filipino proxies.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 30, 2017)

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