By Perry Diaz
When President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte was sworn in last June 30, 2016, the first person he introduced to the audience was former President Fidel V. Ramos, whom he credited for helping him launch his presidential candidacy. It did not then come as a surprise when Digong appointed Ramos as his special envoy to China.
Immediately, Ramos went to Hong Kong to make contact with a former high-ranking Chinese official and a few other Chinese personalities to “break the ice.” But as Ramos had told reporters upon his return to Manila, “It’s not really a breakthrough in a sense that there is no ice here in Hong Kong to break but the fish we eat… are cooked in delicious recipes.”
After that, Duterte’s people started making arrangements for his China trip. They even had a date set for the visit – October 18-21. But the official invitation did not come until the last minute. With an entourage of more than 400 business people, cabinet members, presidential aides, generals, journalists, and kibitzers, Digong flew into the red dragon’s lair. After four days of bad-mouthing the Americans, he brought home $24 billion in investment pledges and loans, including $13.5 billion in trade deals. The question is: what concession did he give the Chinese?
But no sooner had Digong landed in Manila than he pivoted 180 degrees and reaffirmed U.S.-Philippine ties. Given his avowed dislike – or to be more precise, hatred of the U.S. – why would he make a fool of himself with such diplomatic boo-boos and flip-flops? Or, as Americans love to say, “Are you out of your mind?”`
Well, Duterte is not out of his mind but what appeared to have happened was he was playing China and the U.S. off each other, perhaps hoping to get the best of both worlds. But what he didn’t realize was that he was dealing with pros. China is the second biggest economic power next to the U.S. and for a third-world country to play China against the U.S. – the Philippines’ treaty ally – is something that’s not in the playbook of geopolitics. Nobody has done that and succeeded in getting concessions from both sides. On the contrary, Digong might find himself caught in a vise because China and the U.S. are big trading partners with interlocking economic interests. So, when push comes to shove, the two superpowers could – or would –find ways to amicably settle their differences and throw Digong under the bus.
What China wants
But ultimately, China would try to get what she had always wanted – sovereignty over the South China Sea (SCS), which includes all the islands, rocks, reefs, and shoals in these waters. And also all the marine resources, and oil and gas deposits, which would provide China with food and energy for her 1.4 billion people. Thus, there is just no way that China would give away any part of the SCS without going to war, which Duterte already conceded when he said, “We cannot win a war with China.” However, Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said at the closing ceremony of the 33rd Philippines-U.S. Amphibious Landing Exercise (Phiblex) last October 12, “There is only one power on earth that can stop the Chinese and that’s the U.S.” Digong knows that. And the Chinese know it, too. They also know that the Philippines a geostrategic buffer zone that the U.S. can use to counter China and prevent her from breaking out into the Second Island Chain in the Western Pacific, America’s last line of defense.
With five Philippine military bases that the Americans can use to deploy their forces, it would be too much of a risk for China to start a war in the SCS. However, if war breaks out, the Philippines will be on the front-line, which is just around 100 miles from the Spratly archipelago where China had built seven militarized artificial islands. Then there are the U.S. bases in Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Singapore. And with five aircraft carrier battle groups under the joint command of the 3rd Fleet and 7th Fleet and a fleet of nuclear ballistic missile submarines, the U.S. would have more than sufficient forces to maintain peace and stability in the Indo-Asia-Pacific Region… and keep China at bay.
Quid pro quo
Although Ramos was credited for “breaking the ice” in China-Philippine relations, what really paved the way for Digong’s celebrated state visit to China were Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and Transportation Secretary Arthur Tugade’s “unpublicized” – or secret – trip to China last June prior to Duterte’s inauguration. U.S. Ambassador Philip Goldberg revealed this when he was recently interviewed at the ANC talk show, “Headstart.” The question is: Did Cayetano and Tugade strike a “quid pro quo” deal with the Chinese?
Someone who may have played a key role in forging the Chinese-Philippine connection was Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua. The groundwork for this “connection” may have been laid out when Zhao and several Chinese businessmen visited then president-elect Duterte in Davao City. Zhao, who had kept a low profile during former President Aquino’s time, has been a “frequent visitor” to Davao City and Malacanang, conspicuously attired in a silk Kung Fu suit. He’s often pictured with Duterte or Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay Jr., the two people that matter most to him to advance China’s interests. And if you look at what transpired in the first four months of Digong’s presidency, Zhao was pretty darn successful.
Ramos must have sensed that something was afoot after his ice-breaking “unofficial” trip to Hong Kong. He seems to have been sidelined by Duterte’s “kitchen cabinet,” which is presumably pro-China. About two weeks prior to Digong’s China trip, Yasay informed Ramos that his trip to Beijing was cancelled. No reason was given for the cancellation; however, the speculation was that Ramos was an “Amboy” (American Boy), a pejorative for someone who is staunchly pro-American.
A few days before Duterte’s China trip, Ramos informed Malacanang that he would not be part of the president’s delegation. Communications Secretary Martin Andanar said in a press briefing, “He did not say why he won’t join but I believe that it is about giving respect to our current President Rodrigo Duterte.” But what else could he have said?
A week after Digong arrived from his China trip, Ramos resigned as special envoy to China. But for whatever official reasons why Ramos quit, it will surprise no one if the real reason for his resignation is that Duterte has become “toxic” – that is, politically hazardous — and has to dissociate and distance himself from him. Ramos, a West Point graduate, a retired Lt. General, hero of the EDSA People Power Revolution, and former president of the Philippines, is undoubtedly pro-American and anti-communist, which would certainly make China’s leaders uneasy in dealing with him.
In an article reported in the Asia Times titled, “Has the Philippines blown its South China Sea win?” (November 2, 2016), it said: “The price the archipelago nation has paid — or will pay — for his China pivot is also enormous. Besides economic and military separation from America, the Philippines’ long-standing and most important ally, which will likely negatively impact his country in the long-term, if it is materialized, he has made substantial maritime and territorial concessions.
“With such lavish deals agreed with China, coupled with Beijing’s claim of its inherent and indisputable sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, its opposition to the arbitration case and Duterte’s alienation of the Philippines’ key international partners and allies, the prospect that China will comply fully or even partly with the ruling has become unthinkable.”
And this raises the question: Did China trick Digong into giving up so much for so little in return? It seems like it.