POSTSCRIPT / July 19, 2018 / Thursday


Opinion Columnist

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Trump trusts Putin as Duterte does Xi

US PRESIDENT Donald Trump being deferential to Russian leader Vladimir Putin in their meeting in Helsinki reminded us of President Rodrigo Duterte’s going to great lengths to please his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping.

The reluctance of Trump and Duterte to speak up promptly against foreign threats to their countries’ security has disturbed their respective constituencies. In Duterte’s case, it is his fear to openly question Chinese aggressive military buildup in the West Philippine Sea.

Meeting the press Monday after a two-hour summit with Putin, Trump stunned the world when he defended Russia against charges of meddling in the 2016 US election despite evidence gathered by the US intelligence community proving it.

When asked which — between Putin and US intelligence — he believed on the issue of election hacking, Trump said he did not “see any reason why it would be” Russia, pointing out that Putin “was extremely strong and powerful” in his denial.

Immediately Trump was denounced by Democrats and Republicans alike, stopping short of calling him down for treason. An intelligence veteran said it was becoming clear that Trump “is either a witting or unwitting Russian asset,” an opinion shared by others in the spying business.

Some of his own key Republican party mates, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, House foreign affairs committee chairman Ed Royce, and Senate foreign relations committee chairman Bob Corker, assailed Trump for his remarks that sent shockwaves around the globe.

With bipartisan criticism raining on him, Trump tried taking it back Tuesday. Reading from a codigo, he said he accepted intelligence findings on the meddling. But he watered it down somewhat when he added it “could be other people also.”

He did not take back comments blaming US “foolishness and stupidity” for the soured relations with the Kremlin after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, incursions into Ukraine, backing for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s bloody civil war.

That the rewording of his remarks came a full day late and not at Helsinki itself may have dulled its effect on those appalled at his publicly siding with Putin instead of with the US government’s own intelligence professionals.

Trump had the opportunity to confront Putin, standing to his left, on the interference question made stark by the filing Friday by Special Counsel Robert Mueller of hacking charges against 12 more Russian military cyber-operatives – but he blew it.

The indictment, btw, shows that still unidentified Americans — including a person close to the Trump campaign and a candidate for the Congress – had communicated with the Russian intelligence officers. This may explain Trump’s repeated denial of any “collusion.”

A number of possible reasons for his pro-Putin posture were advanced by analysts, the most disturbing of which is that Trump may have been compromised, that Putin the master spy may have something serious on him, from either a business or personal standpoint.

When the press asked Putin himself about the US President possibly being compromised, he beat around without categorically denying it – concluding limply that it was “difficult to imagine an utter nonsense of a bigger scale than this.”

Other Republicans reacting: Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), “most disgraceful performance”; Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), “his position is untenable and at odds with the forceful response this moment demands”; Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), “Putin gained tremendously from the presscon”; Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida), “Putin’s behavior was very calculated”; Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina), “meeting with Putin a missed opportunity perceived as weakness by Russia”; and Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-South Carolina), “Russia’s not our friend, sows seeds of discord.”

 Like Trump, Duterte hands tied on China?

WE HAVE often voiced concern that Duterte, a mayor trying his hand at being president, may have been outfoxed or compromised by a cunning China. In our Postscript of May 6, 2018, we asked: “Can Duterte say no to the Red Dragon?” That piece said in part:

When will President Duterte wake up to the security threats posed by the escalating military presence of China in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone? When and where will he draw the line – if ever?

Professing friendship, China serves Duterte a lauriat of investment promises and massive loans (that look to skeptics like baits to a debt trap). Meanwhile, the Red Dragon has been building up reefs in the West Philippine Sea into islands now harboring military installations.

A report in The Diplomat this week analyzes China’s setting up missiles systems on Fiery Cross, Subi, and Mischief reefs/isles in the Spratly group near the southern tip of Palawan. Intelligence photographs of the military installations have been uploaded in the internet.

On Jan. 6, two Xian Y-7 military transport planes were photographed on a runway built on Panganiban (Mischief) reef/isle. The foreign office said it might file a protest if warranted, but it was not clear if it did.

Photographs were also published earlier showing that China has transformed Kagitingan (Fiery Cross), Calderon (Cuarteron), Burgos (Gaven), Mabini (Johnson South), Zamora (Subi) and McKennan (Hughes) reefs into artificial islands. Malacañang did not show much concern.

China has been militarizing maritime features in the West Philippine Sea in full view of its neighbors, some of them counter-claimants. Crisscrossed by sea lanes where some $3.5 trillion in goods pass yearly, the disputed area has become a flashpoint.

President Duterte cannot be unaware that Beijing, having gained control the WPS features now bristling with airstrips, reinforced shelters, radar and missile sites, is not likely to give them up. What must he do?

Has Duterte, dubbed by Time magazine as a “strongman,” been compromised or intimidated by China into acquiescence? Whatever, he has a clear obligation to explain to the nation his failure to protect Philippine maritime areas against foreign incursions.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of July 19, 2018)

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