POSTSCRIPT / January 22, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Can Duterte keep both US and China?

WILL President Rodrigo Duterte still be all praise for newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump when/if the latter makes good his threat to go after China as a cheating trader and a regional bully?

Sooner or later, especially if State Secretary nominee Rex Tillerson joins the Trump team, Duterte may have to choose between continuing to cozy up to the next-door Mandarin suitor or swing back to good old Uncle Sam.

Or, summoning his skills in handling love triangles, Duterte may just succeed – to everyone’s relief — in positioning himself as a moderating influence in the regional rivalry between China and the US.

Part of his capital is the strategic location, as well as the rich natural and human resources, of the country he now appears to control. Such attributes make the Philippines, and Duterte, valuable to power players seeking Asia-Pacific predominance.

In his Davao home base over the weekend, Duterte was gushing over the inauguration of the 45th US President: “It was a very superb ritual and Trump was at his best.” He talked of looking forward to repairing bilateral ties that were frayed during the Obama administration.

Appreciating that the New York tycoon-turned-politico “talked from the heart,” Duterte said he liked Trump’s “Make America great again!” slogan (reminiscent of the martial law Marcosian “Make this nation great again!” mantra).

But after the excitement of the inaugural wears off and everybody settles down to realpolitik, Duterte may have to spend time guessing how Trump intends to use him in making the US great again as he translates into policy and action his thoughts about the Asian dragon:

> China must be laughing at how easy it has been to take advantage of the US. Better to slap all its exports to the US a 25-percent tax to make American products competitive and balance out the trade deficit.

> The US must rethink the opening of its market to countries like China that “steal (e.g. intellectual property) from us” or oppress and violate the human rights of their people.

> China’s currency manipulation should stop. Although American products are better, Chinese goods are given a competitive edge by the currency manipulation.

> Pressure or motivate US firms to close their factories in China and relocate home to provide more jobs to Americans.

The US-China rivalry will loom bigger if Tillerson, an outspoken former Exxon Mobil Corp. chairman and chief executive, is confirmed as State Secretary and given a chance to influence and enforce foreign policy.

• Tillerson favors confronting China

TESTIFYING days ago before the Senate foreign relations committee, Tillerson batted for stopping China’s building of artificial islands in areas within the territorial seas of its neighbors – and its putting up of military installations on them.

He said the US must reaffirm its security ties with its regional friends. He did not mention the Philippines, a treaty ally, but cited Taiwan (which China regards as a renegade province) with which he said the US must renew its commitments. This departs from the One-China US policy.

Beijing bristled at the declarations of a figure who is likely to become the key enforcer of a more aggressive US foreign policy that could put the US on collision course with China.

As the two superpowers gird for a showdown in the South China Sea, where and how will Duterte position the Philippines, a military pygmy and a medium-scale economic player?

Assuming Trump attempts to catch up, will Duterte review the multimillion-dollar development projects and aid that Beijing has lined up for the pipeline? Or will he simply open the country to both – and may the best man win?

As reported by Reuters, Tillerson appearing for confirmation in the Senate described China’s building and militarizing of artificial islands as “akin to Russia’s taking Crimea” from Ukraine – a move that triggered a US-NATO military response.

Asked whether he supported a more aggressive stance toward China, he said: “We’re going to have to send China a clear signal that, first, the island-building stops and, second, your access to those islands also is not going to be allowed.” He did not elaborate.

Using a unilaterally drawn “nine-dash line” boundary, China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing territorial claims.

Reuters reported that China’s foreign ministry spokesman Lu Kang, when asked about Tillerson’s suggesting blocking access to the islands, said he could not guess what was being referred to, nor would he speculate on hypothetical situations.

• Pope warns against ‘populist saviors’

A NEW CROP of leaders of varying shades and styles of “populism,” meanwhile, has sprouted in several countries, eliciting cautionary counsel from Pope Francis that “populism” in some cases could lead to the election of Hitler-like “saviors.”

In an interview with Spanish newspaper El Paisconducted as Trump was being sworn in as President, the Pontiff also condemned the idea of using walls and barbed wire to keep out foreigners. (Trump and Duterte are sometimes described in media as “populist.”)

“Build bridges, not walls,” the Holy Father once quipped after a visit to Mexico. Trump, then a candidate, had announced he would build a wall on the US border with Mexico to stop illegal migration and the smuggling of narcotics.

In his El Pais interview, the Pope said, “Of course crises provoke fears and worries,” but that for him “the example of populism in the European sense of the word is Germany in 1933… Germany was looking for a leader, someone who would give her back her identity and there was a little man named Adolf Hitler who said ‘I can do it!’”

“Hitler did not steal power,” the Pope said. “He was elected by his people and then he destroyed his people.”

The Germans at that time also wanted to protect themselves with “walls and barbed wire so that others cannot take away their identity.” He added: “The case of Germany is classic… Hitler gave them a deformed identity and we know what it produced.”

As for the new US President, the Pope said it was too early to judge Trump: “Let’s see what he does and then we will evaluate.”

(First published in the Philippine STAR of January 22, 2017)

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