POSTSCRIPT / March 7, 2021 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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US, PH, China cast in a ménage à trois?

PRESIDENT Duterte said Sunday that the United States wants to have military bases again in the Philippines and that, in fact, it has already stockpiled war materiel in depots all over the country.

We have not seen a US reaction to Duterte’s saying American armaments are stored in the country. What has come out is a report of Ambassador to the US Babe Romualdez saying Washington has sent a list of military assistance to upgrade the armed forces of the Philippines.

The ambassador was quoted as saying that so far the list looked sufficient to “modernize” the AFP. There was no indication, however, if the military boost was enough to convince Duterte to drop his plan to terminate the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement after due notice.

Duterte looks to some observers as playing the US versus China in a bid to get the best deal for the Philippines now reeling from the double whammy of a raging pandemic and a shrinking economy. Watch how Duterte would play this political ménage à trois.

The President divulged US military stockpiles while answering media questions on what China wants in return for donating 600,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines. The CoronaVac vaccines made by Sinovac Biotech arrived Sunday on a Chinese cargo plane.

Reacting to warnings that China could be squeezing a quid pro quo from him, Duterte blurted out that while China asks for nothing, the US wants military bases. He used the Tagalog word “base” (in two syllables “ba-se”) talking in a mix of English and Filipino.

The President said that in the ongoing negotiations on the VFA, which he wants to terminate, the US is looking to having military bases again in the Philippines. He added that US armaments are already stockpiled in depots all over the country.

He did not give the exact locations of the supposed depots where US weapons are hidden. The press did not have ample time to ask if it was China that fed him the information on the depots or if the intelligence was gathered by the Philippine military.

After the expiration of the PH-US Bases Agreement in 1991 and the dismantling of the installations the next year amid the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, the constitutional ban on foreign bases without a mutually ratified treaty automatically took effect.

If indeed US armaments have been hidden in depots all over the country, it behooves (one of Duterte’s favorite verbs) him to list the locations and report what he has done to prevent their being multiple magnets for attack in case of war.

A slightly more detailed discussion of what Duterte wants from the US in exchange for the VFA’s extension is in our Postscript column of Feb. 14, 2021, titled “Duterte to US: If you want VFA, pay for it”. Link: https://tinyurl.com/2u9vrhsv

In the March 3 presscon, Duterte said in reply to a question on how the Sinovac vaccine donation would influence his view of China’s intrusions and militarized island-building in Philippine maritime areas:

“(It is) a matter of geopolitics. I have made a declaration that we will adopt an independent foreign policy which means to say that, one, I assured China that I will not allow nuclear armaments of America to be stored in the Philippines. Yan ang sinabi ko! That is guarantee na hindi ako papayag, not because it will antagonize China, but it is in the Philippine Constitution which prohibits the presence of nuclear armaments in the country”.

But nobody was asking about nuclear weapons. Then, on a followup question on whether the donation would compromise Manila’s position on Philippine-China issues, Duterte said:

“China never asked for anything, China is giving us everything… Ang pinakamabigat ang Americano ang hinihingi nila ay base.” (…the most difficult part is that Americans are asking for bases.) Do you know the direct consequence kung magka-gera? War will probably start maybe in the theater of war in Spratlys… China… Katabi lang tayo near Pangasinan… sa harap, marami pang probinsya.

“Kung meron (US) armament sila rito yun ang unang tatamaan. We are taking a big gamble there… All we need are only arms for counter-insurgency, OK na yun, not weapons to fight other countries because we do not have the arms and we don’t want it.

Kung magka-gera ang unang matamaan ang Pilipinas kasi nandito ang base, ang mga armas nila. The arms are stored everywhere in the Philippines, maybe you don’t know, may mga depot all around the Philippines where the arms are stored.

Sinabi ko sa kanila (I told the US) I cannot stop you because we’re still negotiating the VFA. But I’m warning you if I get hold of information that the nuclear armaments are here, brought by you, I will immediately ask you to go out and I will terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement ora mismo!”

We are surprised by these security revelations of Duterte, and by his spokesman Harry Roque’s dubbing him the architect of a supposedly independent foreign policy.

Duterte did not draw up, as the alleged architect, an independent foreign policy. To begin with, an independent stance in foreign relations was already mandated by the Constitution before the Davao City mayor became president and dabbled in diplomacy.

See Sections 2 and 7 of Article II (Declaration of Principles and State Policies Principles):

* Section 2. The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation, and amity with all nations.

* Section 7. The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.

And then, Duterte’s conduct of foreign relations is far from independent. He has veered sharply to the left toward Beijing, dragging along with him a population that surveys have shown to be quite suspicious of China’s intentions vis-à-vis the Philippines.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 7, 2021)

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