Is President Rodrigo Duterte a traitor, a tuta (lapdog) of China, or simply a pragmatist trying to get the most of a delicate situation?
The question is being raised again in social media and other opinion forums after the President delivered remarks at the sendoff Tuesday of 50 Filipino scientists tasked to do research at the Philippine (Benham) Rise off Aurora province.
Particularly intriguing was Duterte’s disclosure that his friend China President Xi Jinping had assured him that “we will not allow you to be taken out of your office and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs.” He said Xi’s assurance was “very encouraging.”
In the context of concern over an alleged creeping autocratic rule, a marked rise in prices of essential goods, a drop in overseas workers’ remittances, and suspicions of a “sellout” to China, Xi’s assurance sounds like meddling in domestic matters.
Duterte elaborates: “China will never allow the Philippines to be destroyed… Naisip-isip ko wala naman tayong magawa dito sa China, might as well make friends with them.” (I was thinking there’s nothing we could do with China anyway.)
Is the President pleading helplessness in the face of a superior force? If China is such a formidable antagonist, what do national interest and duty demand of the President and Commander-in-Chief? Has he sought wider counsel outside his Davao coterie?
The Philippine Rise, a 13-million-hectare underwater plateau that is wider than the entire Luzon, is believed to be rich in biodiversity, natural gas and minerals.
The United Nations Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf confirmed on April 12, 2012, that the Rise is part of the Philippines’ continental shelf. This accords the Philippines exclusive rights to explore and exploit its resources.
On May 16, 2017, Duterte signed Executive Order 25, changing its name from Benham to Philippine Rise, after Chinese research vessels were spotted patrolling the area for three months in 2016.
During the program on a Navy landing dock on Casiguran Bay, Duterte said: “Philippine Rise is ours. I did not make any distinction between sovereign rights and sovereign property, sinabi ko lang sa’tin ‘yan. (“It’s ours,” he said presumably in his conversations with Xi.)
Touching on the conflict in the West Philippine Sea, where China has transformed reefs and such uninhabitable maritime features into military outposts in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, Duterte said: “I’m ready to fight, but is it a battle that we can win?
“We are now negotiating. Kaysa magkagiyera ako, mauubos ang sundalo ko. ‘Yong WPS, kunin ko na lang kung anong makuha natin. (Instead of going to war and losing my soldiers, I would rather try to get what I could.)
In contrast, a smaller country like Vietnam rebuilding from the ravages of decades-long war, loudly protested whenever the Chinese dragon reared its head in Vietnamese waters, sometimes sending patrols to challenge much bigger Chinese warships.
In similar situations, including the rapid militarization of artificial isles in the country’s EEZ, Duterte’s foreign office has not emitted a whimper, or bothered to file a formal diplomatic protest, if only for the record.
Duterte seems scared of displeasing Xi, who has kept him hoping and waiting for the delivery of China’s promised massive aid, loans and investments.
• US reaction under MDT not instant
At the sendoff on Casiguran Bay, Duterte said: “When China claimed the entire ocean as theirs, wala ‘kong magawa, wala tayong magawa dahil ‘yan ang gusto niya. (There was nothing we could do, that was what they wanted.)
“But we learned a bitter lesson there. It has nothing to do with politics. We filed an arbitration and we won.”
He repeated his misleading statement that after the Aquino administration won an award at the UNCLOS-based Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, it did nothing to press the ruling that junked China’s “nine-dash line” claim over much of the SCS.
Duterte twisted the fact that when the ruling came out in July 2017, he was already the president. But he put aside that legal and diplomatic Philippine ace as, by that time, he was already in earnest courtship of China under the pretext of pursuing an independent foreign policy.
Before the sendoff, there was light talk about Duterte’s making good his campaign pledge to jump onto a jet ski to plant the Philippine flag on disputed isles. Problem was the Rise was on the other (east) side of Luzon where there was no dispute.
The President was criticized for heading in the opposite direction of the West Philippine Sea, a region that has become a security flashpoint because of China’s isle-building and militarization frenzy.
Duterte’s bloggers say that China was emboldened to build up close to the Philippines, because of the failure of the United States, its Mutual Defense Treaty partner, to react when China first started its area-grabbing in Philippine waters.
In his remarks, Duterte himself noted that the US “has lost its will to fight.” Former President Barack Obama, a Democrat, tried to arrest the decline of US prestige by announcing a pivot to Asia. This move, however, was dropped by his successor Donald Trump, a Republican.
Most Filipinos are unaware that under the defense treaty, US reacts only when a foreign armed attack is launched against metropolitan Philippines. Shots must actually be fired to trigger the usual congressional process preceding a war-like response.
If war freaks have in mind instant US retaliation, there must be an armed attack on American forces or air/naval craft. Chinese reclamation of reefs or shoals that are not part of US territory is insufficient reason for the US to spring into action under the treaty.