POSTSCRIPT / March 3, 2020 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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VFA’s end tightens China hold on WPS

WE are not surprised by President Duterte’s disowning the moves disclosed by his ambassador to the United States for the possible replacement of the Phl-US Visiting Forces Agreement that Duterte has unilaterally terminated.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio warned last week that with the VFA being abrogated 180 days after Feb. 11, China will be able to control the West Philippine Sea using the military bases it has built there.

Chinese control of the strategic and resource-rich Philippine waterway is precisely the idea behind Duterte’s serving the notice of termination.

If Filipinos do not voice early objection, their silence could mean they approve of President Duterte’s opening Philippine maritime areas, particularly its exclusive economic zone, to eventual control and exploitation by China.

But while Duterte’s policies impacting on Philippine security and sovereignty look sinister, there is nothing secret about them. The people’s silence would then be taken for acquiescence, their giving consent to the apparent rape.

As early as his first visit to Beijing in 2016 after becoming president, Duterte announced his pivoting away from the Philippines’ only treaty ally, the US, and his liaison with China in the guise of pursuing an independent foreign policy.

Catching up with the rollout of China’s Belt and Road Initiative linking nearly 70 countries and international organizations in Asia, Europe and Africa, Duterte cozied up to China President Xi Jinping, who rewarded the new client with promised loans, aid, and investments.

The excited Davao city mayor must have thought that China’s bankrolling his ambitious Build, Build, Build program would usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” that could prop him up even beyond the 2022 end of his six-year term.

That delusion of becoming a leader for life was tantalizing enough to encourage him to dream big. At some point, Duterte even talked of forming a power axis with China’s Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

The election in 2016 of US President Trump, whose rhetoric sounds attuned to the mayor’s populist accent, failed to prevent Duterte – despite personal hurts in the hands of Americans — from wiping his slate of Washington’s “meddling.”

Flushed with his exciting debut on the world stage, Duterte could have concluded that China’s promise of all-out support, especially the bankrolling of his key projects, was enough to enable him to make good on his election promises.

As he awaited the delayed delivery of Chinese promises, Duterte did his end of the bargain: He set aside the arbitral award that the Philippines won in 2016 at the Hague against China; allowed China’s aggressive buildup and militarization of features in Philippine maritime areas; pretended not to see the harassing of Filipinos in their traditional fishing grounds; approved agreements with Chinese entities using Philippine patrimonial assets as collateral; gave Chinese investors access to security-sensitive areas; welcomed hordes of suspicious Chinese mainlanders without prior vetting… et cetera.

Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez said in a forum on Friday: “We are trying to find ways and means to be able to see how we can either come out with something similar (to the VFA), perhaps again still following the president’s thinking about the sovereignty issue.”

“From what I’m told, the door is not totally shut… But again, the bottom-line always falls on sovereignty,” Romualdez said without sharing details. He added that discussions are limited at the “diplomatic level” involving US Ambassador Sung Kim.

In a lecture last week at the Ateneo de Manila, former SC justice Carpio warned that once the Philippines drops its military alliance with the US, starting with the VFA, “We will lose the West Philippine Sea.”

Carpio said the scrapping of the Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty and the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement will follow, giving China a signal that the coast is now clear for it to occupy and claim Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales.

Duterte’s abrogating the VFA, Carpio said, sends a message to China that “there is no more red line… the Americans are no longer here to enforce the red line.”

He cited some events in the history of the West Philippine Sea that show China’s intention to move in and how US presence has deterred China:

* When the US bases were closed in 1992 and American troops forced to leave, the first thing that China did was to seize Mischief Reef, a feature in the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile EEZ close to the Philippines-occupied Ayungin shoal where the grounded ship BRP Sierra Madre stands as a base for Philippine troops. China claimed it was merely building fishermen’s shelters on Mischief. Now it is one of China’s seven large militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea.

* In March 2016, a Chinese dredger was spotted by US satellites approaching Panatag (Scarborough) presumably to reclaim it. President Obama called President Xi: “There will be serious consequences if you reclaim Scarborough Shoal. Scarborough is a red line.” Xi backed down and the dredgers turned back.

Carpio also recalled the annual Balikatan exercises a month later, where the US military showcased the M142 High Mobility Artillery Rocket System or HIMARS, capable of launching long-range guided missiles beyond 300 kilometers, with Scarborough well within range.

But with the end of the VFA, and the expectation that the MDT and the EDCA would follow, Carpio said China could be emboldened to take Scarborough.

On Wednesday, President Duterte again shocked thinking Filipinos when he said in an event that if the Philippines cannot learn to defend itself, the country should just choose between being a US territory or a province of China.

It is amazing how the President oversimplified the question over the nation’s survival to a false choice between becoming a US territory and a province of China.

Ignoring other alternatives, and imperatives, to national survival, Duterte is doing his best to justify his not-so-secret intention of running to the waiting arms of China.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 3, 2020)

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