POSTSCRIPT / January 19, 2017 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Do Duterte, AFP top brass still talk?

WE PRESUME that the Commander-in-Chief still talks with, or to, his generals running the armed forces, so we are somewhat puzzled hearing discordant notes when President Rodrigo Duterte and the military top brass sing the same songs separately in public.

> The President threatens to declare martial law to save “my country” from lawlessness, even if it would mean ignoring the constitutional process – but the armed forces says through its spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla there is no compelling reason for him to do that.

> The President orders his troops to bomb and wipe out Abu Sayyaf terrorists who are using kidnap victims as human shields – but Gen. Eduardo Año, AFP chief of staff, interposes that the military’s first objective is to rescue the hostages.

> The President plays down China’s militarizing several artificial islands it has illegally built in Philippine waters — while Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, a retired Army major general, says such activity is “very troubling” and neither peaceful nor friendly

When the President and the military get to talk, they might find it useful to bring in also Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, who seems overwhelmed by the complexity of the geopolitical problems he has had to tackle while learning on the job.

It took Yasay several weeks to respond to China’s building islands in surrounding seas complete with military-grade airstrips and weapons of war – and only after public opinion questioned the Philippine government’s timidity in the face of a bullying neighbor.

Duterte gives the impression that at this stage of his love affair with Beijing, which has promised him multimillion-dollar investments and easy loans, he is not yet prepared to displease China until it delivers – and not before ascertaining what the US has in mind.

Duterte awaits word from Trump

COMPLICATING Duterte’s balancing act is the failure of his other suitor across the Pacific, incoming US President Donald Trump, to say clearly and quickly what Washington under a Republican administration has by way of a counter-offer.

The budding ménage à trois of sorts is caught in the painfully slow transition from the Democratic presidency of outgoing Barack Obama smarting from Duterte’s curses for raising human rights questions over his bloody anti-narcotics campaign.

Contrasting with President Duterte’s velvet-glove handling of China’s aggressive island-building is Defense Secretary Lorenzana’s strong statement:

“Notwithstanding the warming of relations between our countries, the Philippine government would be remiss in its duty to protect its national interest if it does not protest, question and seek clarification from China on the presence of weapons in the Spratlys.

“The actions of China in militarizing those disputed features are very troubling. They do not square with the Chinese government’s rhetoric that its purpose is peaceful and friendly.”

The value of Manila’s belatedly announced displeasure over China’s unfriendly activities in disputed areas is diminished by its long delay, the foreign office’s refusal to reveal its text and the date it was delivered.

On a matter as serious as a territorial grab and the militarization of a neighbor’s territorial seas, the Chinese ambassador should have been summoned promptly to the foreign office and there served the diplomatic protest with instructions to deliver it posthaste to his principal.

We understand that nothing approximating that formal process happened, presumably because the Duterte administration is not ready at this point to incur the ire of its potential benefactor.

Militarization of isles in photos

BACK in December, the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies released photographs of heavy anti-aircraft guns and other weapons systems that China had installed on seven built-up islands in the Spratlys.

Without denying their existence, China said the pictures were of weapons it had deployed that had “nothing to do with militarization.” It described them as normal defensive facilities, an allegation that the Philippine military disputed.

Such maritime features, also claimed by neighbors – including the Philippines – are encompassed by China’s “nine-dash line” unilaterally-drawn boundaries of its SCS area.

In July last year, the boundaries were declared as violating international law by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea signed by China, the Philippines and other UN members.

However, the favorable PCA ruling on the arbitration case filed and won by the previous Aquino administration was set aside by Duterte as he turned left to China under what he called an independent foreign policy.

Collateral damage vs safe rescue

ON HIS differing approach to rescuing hostages, General Ano stressed that the military has procedures and techniques to ensure the safety of captives of armed groups.

He told the media: “We are trained for that. We will always make sure that we apply the right force and we apply the right approach to make sure hostages are safe. Our first objective is to rescue the hostages. In the military, we have what we call tactics and techniques and procedures.”

Duterte said in an earlier speech in Davao City: “My order really to the Navy and the Coast Guard is whenever there is a kidnapping and they (kidnappers) are trying to escape, blast them off. They might say ‘there are hostages.’ Sorry, collateral damage.

“Now, if they are blasted every day, that would stop or at least place us…into a parity. Hindi ka lalamang sa kalokohan mo, talagang pasabugin kita. Kaya huwag kayong magpa-kidnap, sa totoo lang.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 19, 2017)

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