POSTSCRIPT / February 13, 2018 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Du30 must explain loss of WPS islets

HOW do we now repair the damage that President Rodrigo Duterte has inflicted on the country’s sovereign interest by his letting China develop into military outposts several maritime features in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone?

With uncontroverted photographic and other evidence of China’s military buildup in the West Philippine Sea in violation of the “good faith” that Duterte has cited to reassure his countrymen protesting Chinese intrusion into Philippine territory, what are the options?

Getting back the features (now transformed into islands) by military action is not an option as decades of neglect have stunted our armed forces. Besides, the Commander-in-Chief is not minded to allow such a combative move against his best friends in Beijing.

On street level, the possibility of rallying the nation for a people’s united front to add pressure toward the recovery of lost possessions is dim. The operators and bloggers on the payroll of the Duterte administration have succeeded in dividing, instead of uniting, Filipinos.

Tapping the good offices of supposed friends, such as the United States and Japan, will not work. These rivals of China will weigh the plea of this castaway archipelago in the Pacific against their bigger national self-interest. Besides, Duterte will be too proud to ask for help.

Running back to international arbitration became absurd after Duterte sided with China in ignoring the 2016 arbitration ruling at The Hague favoring Manila on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea of which China and the Philippines are signatories.

So dazzled was Duterte by Beijing’s offer of grants, loans and investments that he, as ASEAN chair, killed the notion that the UNCLOS-based arbitration award affecting several co-members be mentioned in his closing report at the 2017 ASEAN summit in Manila.

Filipinos are witnessing the inevitable results of our President – the country’s sole spokesman in foreign relations – miscalculating his moves vis-à-vis China either because of naiveté, lack of experience or sheer clumsiness.

After shamelessly acting as China’s spokesman and apologist, Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano is still groping for the way out of the political catastrophe that he and his boss the President have brought upon the nation already reeling from domestic difficulties.

• Duterte’s impeachment impossible

WHILE the question of what President Duterte should do in the face of this national humiliation hangs, another issue rears its head: What should be done with him if he fails to repair the damage inflicted on the nation?

Impeachment has been mentioned – but forget it. This political game of numbers cannot prosper in light of the oft-demonstrated fact that the Congress has been reduced by patronage and intimidation into a mere annex of Malacañang.

In addition, political opponents and critics are continually harassed into submission, some prosecuted on the basis of mere affidavits. In this corner of hell where no one is without sin, real or concocted, who is brave enough to resist?

The President can still make like he is working on the WPS issues. To simulate action, he can call a national security consultation with a group that includes past presidents, known security experts, congressional leaders, and selected members of the opposition.

Some procedural details may need clarification. In the discussion, what language would be spoken that Duterte would be comfortable with? What happens if some of those invited ask for a deep security briefing and ask questions about China that may embarrass the President?

It is pointless to call a security consultation among confreres, with those who, by habit or conditioned reflex, think and talk like the President. Is Duterte ready to open a full and free discussion with those outside his tight circle?

There are attempts to soften the impact of losing WPS islets by talking grandly of China’s alleged willingness to absorb Overseas Filipino Workers displaced from the Middle East, and of Beijing’s funding many infrastructure projects under the “Build! Build! Build!” program.

Will there be enough scarred Filipinos ready to believe the crisis propaganda? On the massive loans, the administration must first answer, for instance, questions on who would collect the usual referral fees on the multibillion-dollar loans.

The administration must also explain away the specter of the massive loans — made tempting by easy terms and the urgency of the borrower’s needs – likely to push the Philippines into a debt trap as China collects on the country’s sovereign guarantee in case of a default.

An abject lesson is Sri Lanka, which built some four years ago Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport in Hambantota with Chinese aid of $190 million, more than 90 percent of the total cost. When MRIA started running into losses and Sri Lanka was unable to pay back dues to China’s EXIM Bank, it decided to hand over the airport to India just so the Chinese loan could be paid.

A more recent horror story is that of Pakistan, which signed a “friendly” agreement under which China would build infrastructure in that country without bidding and with only Chinese entities getting contracts financed directly from Chinese commercial banks.

To make a long story short, Pakistan, troubled by dizzying debts, is reportedly unable to pay the Chinese debt. This could result in Beijing taking over strategic sites in Pakistan facing the Indian Ocean vital to China’s aggressive trade expansion.

Any difficulty about the Philippines’ paying huge Chinese loans contracted by Duterte would be inherited by succeeding administrations. Payment even of onerous loans would no longer be his problem.

Will the Sri Lankan and Pakistani examples, among other scary default stories, be repeated in the Philippines? When Manila falls into the debt trap, will Beijing take over Panatag (Scarborough) shoal 120 miles off Zambales and other strategic assets of the defaulting borrower?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of February 13, 2018)

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