Forsaking one master for another
NEW YORK CITY—Announcing a “separation” from the United States of America while on a just-concluded state visit to the People’s Republic of China, President Rodrigo Duterte left many onlookers wondering what exactly did such a separation mean. The president added, for emphasis, that it was “time to say goodbye, my friend.” He also alluded to seeking closer ties with Russia.
Later, in what is becoming a habit with such declarations, he walked back this dramatic volte-face by explaining that he was charting a more independent foreign policy from that of the U.S.
Be that as it may, it is a very real pivot to China, the reigning behemoth in the region—the elephant in the room—and a recognition of realpolitik, Or, having seen the mercurial presidential temperament on full-throated display on previous occasions, is it also the result of a lingering pique over the Obama government’s criticism of Duterte’s war on drugs that has taken more than 3,000 lives, most if not all of them alleged but not proven to be drug pushers and/or dealers?
Whatever the impulse behind this startling declaration, it does give voice to the long-held nationalist aspiration, that the Philippines forge its own path, that is, put some distance between it and its former colonizer. It is the sine qua non of any genuine diplomatic maneuvering, to preserve the territorial integrity, interests, and dignity of the country one represents while coming to a mutual understanding with outside powers, especially those next door.
In that sense, then, Duterte is right to put the U.S. on notice that the Republic of the Philippines will do what it thinks best for its people, even when this may not dovetail with U.S. strategic interests. After all, the U.S. will always put its own good ahead of that of the Philippines. Should not the Philippines then follow the same principle?
As history has shown, from the unjust colonial occupation of the archipelago to U.S. bases at Subic and Clark, there are an infinite number of reasons for Manila’s discontent with Washington. The best summation of prevailing gringo attitude is still that crafted more than a century ago: that Filipinos are their “little brown brothers,” which is not as blunt as Rudyard Kipling’s “white man’s burden” but has the same patronizing spirit, indicated by the two qualifiers that all but vitiate the ostensible sense of fraternity.
But should we give up one master just to serve another, possibly two? China and Russia are both authoritarian states, where dissent is often punished, sometimes in violent ways, and individual freedoms are mostly a fiction. Given the contempt for human rights Duterte has shown, should we be surprised that strongmen Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin may now be his role models?
There must be joy in Beijing that the Duterte administration has agreed to bilateral negotiations, in effect sidelining the Philippines’ spectacular legal victory when the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea at The Hague repudiated China’s absurd claim, with its vaporous nine-dash line, to almost the entirety of the South China/West Philippine Sea. It also further weakens an already timorous Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). You can bet the mighty dragon will do its best to intimidate the little brown brothers even as it offers short-term benefits.
As a former Filipino ambassador (who wishes to remain anonymous) points out, this is “a breathtaking reversal of all previous Philippine governments’ policies towards its traditional allies,” that “what this means concretely for the two countries still has to be parsed and threshed out on the ground.” He notes that “the Philippine political and economic elites have not reacted with any real vigor towards this seismic political, military and economic shift, [and] it remains to be seen whether this ‘independent foreign policy’ will now prevail.”
Perhaps a litmus test of how truly independent a course the Duterte government can forge will be in the discussions with Beijing over the fate of Scarborough Shoal, which is clearly within the territorial limits of the Philippines, and is a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishermen who are now prevented from their livelihood by the Chinese navy. For Manila to seek permission so Filipinos may once again fish in those resource-rich waters would be in effect to recognize China’s claim.
As difficult and problematic as it sounds, Duterte must start with the premise that the shoal and other nearby islands belong incontestably to the Philippines, and that therefore the negotiations should proceed along the lines of possibly allowing the Chinese limited use of the shoal. In short, China should seek Manila’s permission rather than the other way around.
This is the same hotspot that Duterte promised during the presidential campaign to get to on a jet ski and there plant the Philippine flag. Now that the going is tough, where is this promise of macho derring-do?
Copyright L.H. Francia 2016
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