POSTSCRIPT / November 12, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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How far will Trump go to win Duterte?

WHAT gift of a deal for Filipinos does US President Donald Trump have in mind when he arrives today for the 50th ASEAN anniversary fiesta in Manila and his first bilateral with President Rodrigo Duterte?

The term “gift” is used here not in the sense of Greeks bearing gifts, but in the Filipino tradition of courtship — for that is what we think the United States has to do to win back Duterte. The ploy will not necessarily repair tattered ties, but it will help.

If Trump thinks it is beneath the US to reach out to its former colony or to engage in a kind of competition, then it’s really good-bye, as Duterte once described Manila’s drifting away from Washington.

China President Xi Jinping got ahead to Duterte with pledges of massive investments, loans and aid. The Chinese timing was perfect – the firebrand Philippine leader has been nursing hurt feelings from his brushes with “ugly Americans.”

To complete his pivot to the left, Duterte cast farther out and caught the attention of Russia President Vladimir Putin. The Philippine leader has this vision of the three points – China, Russia and the Philippines – aligning into a new axis “against the world.”

In the competition for Duterte’s favor, Trump is handicapped by institutional limitations if he wants to outdo or outbid the strongmen Xi and Putin in extending assistance to the Philippines.

Trump has to contend with congressional processes and win the support of party moguls, business interests, and the media. Then there is the opinion of major allies, including European powers, to consider.

One red-hot issue alone – human rights – has been weighing down on the White House’s handling of Duterte, who has been roundly denounced for his alleged violation of human rights as he pursues his bloody war against illegal drugs.

Criticisms against Duterte could rub off on Trump. Normally, if Duterte is too heavy political baggage, the US can just dump him and wave goodbye. But it is not that simple.

• It’s the Philippines, not Duterte

IT SO happens that the real factor in the power equation in the South China Sea is not Duterte himself, but the Philippines. If the problem were just the Davao mayor-turned-president, it would be easy to replace him by the usual ways and means, overt and covert.

But while actors can be replaced, scripts rewritten and even political ideologies revised, geography cannot be reformed.

The map shows the strategic value of the Philippines, an archipelago of some 7,000 islands forming a natural barrier between an expansionist communist China and the wide-open Pacific exposing Trump’s American homeland that he is sworn to defend.

The simple caption of that geographical picture is: The Philippines must remain a constant ally of America (with or without a Duterte).

Trump’s having to make a grueling 11-day trip to touch base with five Asian capitals shows the deep US concern – it’s actually fear – that the mad man toying with nuclear-tipped missiles in Pyongyang might just press the red button and ignite the Last World War (ironically the same warning Hillary Clinton had raised against Trump).

The leaders visited by Trump know that his prime interest in rallying North Korea’s neighbor is in the selfish spirit of his “America First” slogan. But there is also the imperative of their common survival by pressuring the rogue state to desist from playing with nuclear fire.

Were Trump’s sales talk and handshake with the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and several other countries as well as the United National Secretary-General enough to cement everybody’s commitment?

Probably. At least, it may be useful if it swells into an action of the UN Security Council and the General Assembly and deter the further development and stockpiling of nuclear weapons.

In the case of the Philippines, an economically and militarily modest country that has caught world attention with the antics of its president, how will this week’s gathering at the ASEAN summit with Duterte as chair and host, improve the quality of life of Filipinos?

As is our habit, we audit our expensive over-exertions only after that question is asked – not before we jump off the summit.

• Due recognition for Marawi heroes

YOU’RE lucky if you’ve had the chance to talk with those we now call our Marawi Heroes – the soldiers and policemen who battled Islamic State-inspired terrorists and got a harrowing baptism of urban warfare.

We had that opportunity for conversation last week and came out convinced that it is time we gave recognition, and more, to all soldiers, Marines, policemen and Coast Guard personnel who had served in Marawi.

Aside from the medals for exceptional heroism – even the Medal of Valor, the country’s highest decoration of bravery in combat — President Duterte may want to grant all the gallant men and women a campaign ribbon, something like a Marawi Liberation Ribbon or a Marawi Campaign Ribbon.

Those who shared the burden of war but did so with no death-defying drama would still gain recognition with that ribbon. All the Commander-in-Chief has to do is issue an executive order instituting the ribbon and it will be carried out in the various headquarters.

While they are at it, and while Trump is talking to our President, there should be an effort to mention the Philippine requisition or order for some US firearms – if not to Trump himself maybe to State Secretary Rex Tillerson.

With Trump himself having expressed concern over terrorism and praised the Philippines’ relentless campaign to roll it back, a polite reminder about the pending purchase order for 26,418 9-mm pistols will help move the item.

We heard the export permit is pending with the Department of State. The end-user is the Philippine National Police, whose men need reliable firepower in dealing with criminals, insurgents and terrorists, especially now that the anti-drug campaign has been moved to the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of November 12, 2017)

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