POSTSCRIPT / April 13, 2021 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Duterte swamped by issues on China

THE PLATE of President Duterte is overflowing with Chinese chop suey whose smell indicates that it may start to spoil if left untouched any longer.

It is not easy for Duterte to justify his seeming tolerance of China’s taking over features in the West Philippine Sea and turning them into military outposts to tighten control of the strategic sea lanes linking the Indian Ocean and the Western Pacific.

As if that were not difficult enough, Duterte now has to also convince hesitant Filipinos to try Chinese COVID-19 vaccines instead of Western brands whose arrival had been delayed by the government’s “dropping the ball” in the processing of their licensing and procurement.

Duterte has been careful not to disturb his friendship with China President Xi Jinping, who has promised to support his ambitious infrastructure and development programs, and do everything necessary to keep him in power.

His pivot to Beijing, however, is taking an awkward turn with Chinese militia boats swarming reefs and isles in Philippines-claimed waters and missile-wielding patrol boats chasing away Filipino fishermen and TV news teams while operating in their own EEZ.

These Chinese intrusions and abuses, which Duterte in effect tolerates by his silence, have started to draw more than passing notice.

Like in the delay in the negotiations for US-made COVID-19 vaccines that enabled Chinese drug-makers to steal a march on their competitors, Duterte does not seem to be in a hurry to confront China’s trespassing and offensive behavior in Philippine waters.

In the case of China’s building up of reefs and such features in disputed areas and transforming them into military outposts, it is interesting to note that Article XVIII (Transitory Provisions), Section 25, of the Constitution, provides:

“xxx 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.”

While the Philippines has no sovereignty — only sovereign rights – over its EEZ, the spirit of the constitutional ban on foreign bases and facilities could animate policies that frown on their presence on Philippine territory if not covered by a mutually ratified treaty.

A number of times, Duterte has said – correctly, according to experts – in commenting on maritime incidents such as the ramming in June 2019 of a Filipino-owned fishing boat by a Chinese vessel, that Philippine sovereignty does not cover its EEZ.

Still, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana emerging from his COVID-19 quarantine discussed Sunday with his US counterpart Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin III Chinese activities in the West Philippine Sea, including the swarming by Chinese militia boats of Julian Felipe Reef off Palawan.

A long-time treaty ally, the US has been reiterating its readiness to help the Philippines defend its territorial integrity, military forces, and public vessels in an armed attack by a foreign aggressor.

This is a commitment made in the PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty of 1951. Operational details were later covered by the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement and the Visiting Forces Agreement that Duterte has threatened to terminate if the US cannot meet his demands.

Meanwhile, Lorenzana’s fellow alumni from the Philippine Military Academy who form the bulk of the officers’ corps in the armed forces and the national police have expressed their full support of the initiative of the defense secretary.

• What’s the plan vs COVID-19?

PRESIDENT Duterte was to resume last night his weekly “Talk to the People” show which we expected to revolve around public and private health – the COVID-19 pandemic and his own medical condition.

As we write this column Monday morning, hours before his evening TV appearance with his supporting cast, we can almost guess what he is likely to tell viewers. (This is assuming the show, twice canceled, would push through.)

On the COVID-19, we expect him to announce new quarantine classifications of Metro Manila and the rest of the country, give an update on the mass vaccination program, and remind the public of the preventive measures – most of which have been published in media.

On his personal state of health, photographs and videos purporting to prove his physical fitness for his tough job as President had been released in advance to nip the anxiety of Filipinos who have started to feel having been left to fend for themselves.

The poor masses facing the specter of either quick death by coronavirus infection or slow starvation have been waiting for the President to say how he plans to save them. Everybody knows what or who the problem is. What they are waiting for is the solution.

We hope the President was able to present the solution last night. As of Sunday, meantime, COVID-19 had infected 864,868 Filipinos, killed 201 new victims, and was still surging.

Pardon us if we sound tired, resigned, or skeptical, but we really are – like most people barred from stepping out of their dwellings, or who have sneaked out to earn some cash, look for food for their children, or join the crowd waiting to be handed money (actually it’s their own taxes being returned) like beggars.

Some of us have taken to social media to unburden ourselves. Socmed is the last remaining Wailing Wall of a people roused up to the reality that while crying may bring temporary relief, it is not the final deliverance from man-made misery.

Now if weeping or unburdening one’s self at the Wailing Wall, in social media or elsewhere, fails to bring relief, what could follow?

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 13, 2021)

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