By Perry Diaz
President Rodrigo Duterte’s ascension to the Philippine presidency happened at a time when the country was anxiously waiting for the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling on China’s maritime claims in the South China Sea (SCS). And when the ruling was finally released on July 12 invalidating China’s “nine-dash line” claim and that China had no historical rights to the rocks, reefs, and shoals in the SCS, the newly installed president found himself in the international limelight. And when the media asked him where he stood in regard to the arbitration case his predecessor former President Benigno S. Aquino initiated, Duterte gave conflicting statements.
In a matter of days – nay, hours — Duterte was pushed into the choppy waters of the SCS to deal with China’s aggression. He found himself in a precarious situation with nobody to call for help. It was sink or swim. And when U.S. President Barack Obama offered to meet with him at the ASEAN Summit in Vientiane, Laos to talk about their countries’ security relationship and the issue of human rights violations, Duterte was miffed. He didn’t like Obama saying that he’d like to talk to him about human rights violations. But had he known how U.S. foreign policy works, he would have understood that if he expected the American “sugar daddy” to give the Philippines military assistance, his government would have to pass the litmus test for the preservation of human rights. That was just the way the U.S. Congress would allow the U.S. government to give military assistance to other countries.
Instead, just like his “kanto boy” upbringing, Duterte responded the way he was used to, saying: “ ‘Putang ina,’ I will swear at you in that forum.” “Putang ina” is the Tagalog phrase for “son of a whore.” For Duterte’s outburst, Obama cancelled the meeting. Duterte missed an opportunity to solidify his administration’s relationship with the country’s only treaty ally and benefactor.
Independent foreign policy
Soon after that incident, which by international standards shouldn’t have happened, Duterte started talking about pursuing an “independent foreign policy.” He indicated that he’d ask Russia and China to supply the Philippines with military armaments. He said that he’d open the country to trade with Russia and China; and is prepared to give them 120-year leases. And what would he get in return for prostituting the Philippines to these two countries run by dictators? Oh yeah! Duterte might finally get his railroad in Mindanao. But he should know that whatever economic assistance the Philippines gets from China, China is going to get back huge slices of the Philippines’ priceless patrimony.
War against drugs
With Duterte’s takeover of the government, he pursued to eliminate the drug menace, which according to him has created 4,000 drug pushers and addicts… and counting. He encouraged the national police to go after them and to kill them if they resisted arrest.
And it was at this juncture that Obama was alarmed. Guided by the Leahy Act, he wanted to discuss with Duterte the more than 3,000 extrajudicial killings since he took office two months ago. Named after Sen. Patrick Leahy, the law’s principal sponsor, Leahy Act prohibits the U.S. Department of State and Department of Defense from providing military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.
And that’s when all hell broke loose! Duterte went ballistic and uttered the “P” word, which is the equivalent of the American “F” word. Duterte then issued – through the media — a series of policies that would severely affect U.S.-Philippine relations. In a fit of anger, he declared that he would soon “cross his Rubicon” with the U.S. He also said that the U.S.-Philippine joint military exercises that are now happening would be the last during his presidency. He also said that he would terminate the Philippine Navy’s participation with the U.S. in joint patrols in the West Philippine Sea. And, worse, he said that the Philippine Navy would not venture beyond the 12-mile territorial limit, which would be tantamount to surrendering the country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to China.
If this is the gist of his “independent foreign policy,” then what we’re seeing here is not independence but a capitulation of national sovereignty, which would undoubtedly lead to vassalage under China. I say this because China will not stop bullying the Philippines and other neighboring countries that don’t have the ability to defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity. Simply put, China wants the entire SCS for herself. And she’s not coy about it.
Deterrence by denial
Honestly, no country in Asia could defend herself against China’s aggressive moves. Even Japan, the world’s third largest economic power after the U.S. and China, has to ally herself with the U.S. and allows the U.S. to deploy 50,000 troops on her soil, including several naval and air bases. Ditto with South Korea, who is under constant threat from nuclear-capable North Korea. With several U.S. air bases and 28,000 American troops stationed in her territory, South Koreans feel safer knowing that for as long as the American forces are in their country, North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un would think twice before invading South Korea.
Before the American bases were kicked out of the Philippines in 1992, their presence served as deterrence against foreign invasion. The purpose of what is known as “deterrence by denial” is to make aggression difficult and unprofitable by rendering the target harder to take, harder to keep, or both. To achieve this, the defenders – Filipino forces with the aid of American forces stationed in the Philippines – must be able to inflict substantial damage to the invaders.
It’s interesting to note that two years after the Americans had left, the Chinese took possession of Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and built fortifications on it. In 2012, China grabbed Scarborough Shoal and prohibited Filipino fisherman from entering its huge lagoon to fish. Two years after that, China started building artificial islands on seven reefs and shoals – including the Mischief Reef – in the Spratly archipelago, all within the Philippines’ EEZ. Thus far, China’s unimpeded salami-slicing of Philippine territory has put into question the Philippines’ defense capability or the lack thereof.
With Duterte’s “independent foreign policy” crafted in an atmosphere devoid of reason, the PCA’s ruling, which invalidated China’s ”nine-dash line,” is imperiled and the ruling could be deemed moot and academic in light of Duterte’s “retreat” from the SCS.
Indeed, the Philippines is not in a position to sever her relationship with the U.S., which Duterte had indicated in his public pronouncements. But his threats to do so are alarmingly dangerous. It doesn’t make any sense why he would kowtow to China and Russia at the expense of the U.S., the country’s strongest military ally, biggest foreign investor, and second largest export market next to Japan. Unlike communist China, both the Philippines and the U.S. have compatible democratic institutions and both subscribe to the rule of law and adhere to the norms of international order. China doesn’t.
In these troubled times, the Philippines has reached a dangerous crossroads where she has to determine which road to take. While it is tempting to try new and uncharted roads, President Duterte should – nay, must! – take the road that would lead the country to economic prosperity and the preservation of individual freedom for her citizens. And if he takes the wrong turn, it could lead to perdition.