THE ALARMING transformation of the West Philippine Sea into a security flashpoint with military outposts bristling with missiles should jolt President Rodrigo Duterte into abandoning the naïve notion that he can tackle China by his lonesome.
From the very beginning of his dalliance with Beijing in 2016, under the pretext of striking out on an independent foreign policy, Duterte should have held reservations about his “love” for his counterpart President Xi Jinping and China’s abiding “good faith.”
Recent developments in what used to be tranquil Philippine seas have shown not only the error of being too trusting and the folly of reducing relations to a game of chance — betting national interests against illusions of winning massive aid, loans and investments.
Events have shown that while the mayor of Davao is cunning enough in local politics, he does not have the deep background and expansive perspective needed by one thrust into the role of architect and spokesman of the country’s foreign relations.
With due respect, Duterte’s basic blunder is his believing that by himself he could handle the veteran Xi Jinping and the Chinese ambassador in Manila, he with the unsettling grin of a Cheshire Cat.
We’ve had just two years of Duterte, not yet into the end game of his six-year term, but it is clear to a growing number of Filipinos watching nervously that Duterte has been outplayed by the Chinese.
Having been dazzled by promises of easy loans and massive investments to push his ambitious “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program, the Mayor — and the nation — may have to Pay! Pay! Pay! very dearly if no rethinking and redoing are done quickly.
On the militarization of the West Philippine Sea, it is clear that the trust and good faith that Duterte had flashed to dampen criticism of his China policy have failed to stop China’s illegal occupation and transformation of uninhabitable sea features into its military outposts.
Duterte has assured his alarmed countrymen that Beijing means no harm, that the missiles emplaced on Philippine territory are not aimed at metropolitan Philippines but are meant to defend China against its enemy – which Duterte indelicately identified as the United States!
As he courted Beijing in anticipation of “good behavior” rewards, Duterte explained that he had set aside the Philippines’ major legal victory against China at the UNCLOS-based Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague—but that he would invoke it at the right time.
But when is the right time? It now appears that the Mayor, surrounded by fellow politicians and amateurs dabbling in diplomacy, have missed the “right time.”
By remaining quiet about that legal victory at The Hague that is recognized by the community of nations, Duterte may have lost on the ground what the Philippines had won at the tribunal.
The interloper is now in control of the maritime areas that the tribunal has declared to have been illegally claimed/occupied at great cost to the ecosystem. What force can now drive an expansionist China from the territory it has grabbed?
We hope the reality is now dawning on Duterte that, playing it alone and only by his Davao ear, he is on the last two minutes of a losing game with the Chinese dragon that is swallowing bits and pieces of a strategic body of water crucial to world security and commerce.
We hope it is not yet too late. But how can the Philippines, a military pygmy under Duterte’s hit-and-miss command, restart the one-sided game and cut losses?
• Solving a problem like Digong
PRESIDENT Duterte himself may end up losing heavily. As we have been pointing out since months ago, Duterte should be held to account for his ignoring (violating?) the constitutional ban on foreign bases on Philippine territory (Article XVIII).
The captive Senate is pretending not to have noticed Duterte’s making light of its Section 25 that provides that “military bases, foreign military bases, troops, or facilities shall not be allowed in the Philippines except under a treaty duly concurred in by the Senate and, when the Congress so requires, ratified by a majority of the votes cast by the people in a national referendum held for that purpose, and recognized as a treaty by the other contracting State.”
Some of the Chinese bases, complete with military-grade airstrips, intermediate-range and surface-to-air missile systems ,and reinforced shelters have been built on Philippine territory in violation of the Constitution that President Duterte is sworn to “preserve and defend.”
The moral, political and legal implications are staggering. What to do?
By his doing nothing to question and protest the militarization of WPS features that the arbitral tribunal had ruled to be within Philippine exclusive economic zone and illegally built up by China, Duterte may have violated the ban.
There is talk of possible impeachment, a political game of numbers. But with both chambers of the Congress under the thumb of a President claiming support of a large number of bots, trolls and voters, such a constitutional recourse may not prosper.
There are rumblings in the foreign office that it may be time to review Duterte’s solo performance and to replace (with a multilateral rules-based approach) his kowtowing to China’s strategy of resolving territorial disputes by direct bilateral negotiation.
Rallying similarly situated neighbors with territorial conflicts with China and calling on the support of civilized countries favoring the rule of law sound great.
But how can the Manila government shift to a multilateral track when an introverted Duterte has antagonized old friends and cursed their leaders as he pivoted to the left toward Beijing since the start of his term?
Maybe some of the time-tested allies are still willing to gloss over the Dutertesque insults – if only to buy time till the shelf life of the Philippine strongman expires.