IT IS reassuring that despite President Duterte’s dalliance with China, the Philippines sat this week for serious talks with its only defense partner, the United States, on economic relations and regional stability.
We had this foreboding that President Duterte has fallen for the blandishments of President Xi Jinping or may have even been compromised in his secret dealings with China’s leader who caught him on the rebound from his unpleasant brushes with America.
On Tuesday, the closing day of the eighth Philippines-US Bilateral Strategic Dialogue (BSD) in Manila, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David Stilwell who led the US panel talked of an alliance to deter aggression and promote regional stability.
Stilwell’s mentioning free and unobstructed access to the seas underscored the US concern over China’s aggressive activities in the South China Sea to the point of controlling areas claimed by neighbors, including the Philippines.
As Washington is a vast ocean away, it will have to count on the co-operation of its allies in the region, including Japan, Australia, South Korea and the Philippines, to keep the sea lanes open in the face of China’s building of military outposts in the busy waterway.
Unfortunately, regional security does not seem to be a priority of Duterte, who is basically a local politician engrossed in delivering on his promises on peace and order, jobs, corruption and his consuming campaign against the proliferation of illegal drugs.
Besides it is uncertain how he would relish taking joint action with the US against China, his friend and benefactor.
The US should explore how it can help in these local concerns whose urgency has pushed Duterte toward Beijing, which had seized the opportunity to lure him with promises of loans, aid and investments.
Stilwell said something about “continued coordination to determine steps we can take to improve our combined defense posture.” A defense posture, presumably against China, is well and good, but the threat of local terrorists and armed bands looks more urgent to the administration.
Note that in a request made to Stilwell, Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. did not list naval vessels, jet fighters and missiles for national defense, but rifles for soldiers and policemen. The secretary said on Twitter:
“I told him that to concretize words of US-Phl amity into action is to sell us what Pompeo was told we need and want to buy 74,000 brand new M16s – w/3 clips each. And Duterte will finish all security threats to our democracy. Not a gift; we will pay. We’re waiting.”
The administration is careful to always say that it will pay for the weapons and equipment that it seeks from foreign suppliers. It despises strings attached, such as when some US senators tried to tie arms sales to the Philippines to human rights.
But wherever the dialogue may lead, it was good that the two sides have resumed earnest talks, if only to stunt the growth of Chinese influence on the administration to the point of testing constitutional limits.
• Duterte dragging US into war?
DIPLOMACY not being his strong suit, President Duterte may want to leave the talking on foreign relations to Cabinet members who not only know what to say but also how to say it when.
The dialogue was still in the news Wednesday when Duterte again challenged the US to lead a war against China over maritime disputes to trigger the Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. He was on TV with an evangelist friend in Davao claiming to be the son of God.
Duterte said: “I’m calling now America. I’m invoking the RP-US pact. I would like America to gather all their Seventh Fleet in front of China. I’m asking them now. And I will join them.”
His remarks only made him look ridiculous. As a lawyer, he must know that the Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy and that the MDT – as its title and text clearly indicate — is only for defense, never intended as an excuse for aggression or attacking another state.
Duterte betrays warlike tendencies. Give him a problem to troubleshoot, he shoots it. This disposition is reflected in his bloody drug war that has earned for him censure of human rights advocates here and abroad.
Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on Sunday responded to Duterte’s challenge to propose a plan to enforce the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in favor of the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China.
Speaking at the Ateneo Law School graduation, Carpio gave possible options, including:
*The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei can enter into a convention declaring that, as ruled by the PCA, no geologic feature in the Spratlys generates an EEZ and there are only territorial seas from the geologic features that are above water at high tide. This will leave China as the only disputant state claiming EEZs from the Spratlys.
*The Philippines can file an extended continental shelf claim in the West Philippine Sea beyond its 200-nautical mile EEZ off Luzon, where China is the only opposite coastal state. The Philippines can file this with the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf. China cannot invoke historic rights under its nine-dash line claim which has been ruled without legal effect by the PCA.
*The Philippines can send its new Coast Guard vessels to patrol its EEZ and drive away poachers. This will assert Philippine sovereign rights over this resource-rich maritime area in accordance with UNCLOS.
*The Philippines can welcome the Freedom of Navigation and Overflight Operations of the US, UK, France, Australia, Japan, India and Canada in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea. Its Navy can join the operations.