[OPINION | Newspoint] A summit of lost chances
The just ended Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit is being trumpeted as a Philippine achievement, like some high goal one set for oneself, and reached. It was not; it was no more than a rotated task that merely fell to the Duterte government, and one that it somehow managed to not mess up.
It was in fact more like a social meeting than like anything serious, long on niceties and platitudes, short on commitments. In fact, it was memorable for its defaults, of which the most significant was another missed chance for Southeast Asian nations like the Philippines to improve their position — by moving it closer to something fair — in dealing with powers like China.
Indeed, if any summiteer came away truly happy, it must be China. For one thing, it once again escaped being buttonholed for bullying its rival claimants to land and waters in the South China Sea; it only had to say it agreed to start talks on a code of conduct for all claimants. No date, not even a provisional one, was set. A date would have held China to something.
With China, there's an entire sea of difference between saying and agreeing. All this time it has been successful in avoiding such talks; it has been successful, too, in building structures, including military ones, in the disputed territory and in keeping rival claimants off. Even Filipino fishermen who have plied those waters all their lives for modest livelihood are banned, the desperately persistent among them chased away by the Chinese navy.
It was exactly for such intransigence and intimidation that the government of Benigno Aquino III had gone for international arbitration, which produced a ruling upholding the Philippine claim. Themselves anxious about China's arbitrariness and covetousness, other claimants could only have been encouraged by the arbitral ruling. Surely concerned, too, are nations using the disputed waters as an international passageway.
Alas, not even a ruling reached in a process it had itself agreed to, signed up for, could make China back down. And, with Rodrigo Duterte as Philippine president, it could not have felt more confident in its strong-arm strategy.
Duterte began brave and ended up treasonous. With a touch of theater known to work in electoral campaigns, he promised to jet-ski on the South China Sea and plant his country's flag in the newly legitimized Philippine territory. But, once elected and reminded, he said it was all a joke. Actually, it was worse than a joke; nobody makes jokes about national sovereignty and lives — although Duterte manages.
He did not even wait for his arm to be twisted before surrendering to the Chinese, effectively, the Philippines' rights to the territory. It's foolish to provoke a military power like China, he said, and proceeded to kowtow to, and be patronized by, it. He went to China and fancied himself an equal in a triumvirate with its president, Xi Jinping, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. It was, of course, a joke — on himself — and it perfectly suited China, such that jocularity now defines its opportunistic relationship with the Philippines.
An early inkling of the character of the relationship was given by the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines when he told Duterte — on nationwide television! — what, say, a member of his Cabinet might only tell him in private: declare an emergency — a state of affairs only normal in one-party-ruled China. Played well by China according to his narcissistic predisposition, Duterte has stuck with China even more crazily.
The relationship has steadily proceeded that way, and the Manila summit provided the most recent stage. Beneath the toasting and dining, behind the song and dance, deals began to be cooked. From post-summit pronouncements by Duterte and his spokesmen, it's easy to see who's getting cooked. China is emerging as a most favored Philippine contractor and creditor, despite its well-known disadvantageous terms: apart from charging much higher rates than other lenders, China is known to insist on supplying logistics — men, machines, and materials — for projects funded by its loans. Shadowy subcontractors are another problem.
A particularly worrisome case has to do with the prospect of a Chinese player competing with the local duopoly in Philippine telecommunications — Globe and PLDT. Mentioned in the same breath, China and telecommunications recall a horror from the not too distant past: NBN-ZTE. Those initials have come to refer to a corruption scandal involving a Chinese company (ZTE) contracted in 2007 by Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's government to build the infrastructure for the National Broadband Network (NBN). Herself implicated in the scandal, Arroyo killed the deal six months later to preempt a Supreme Court ruling on the case. Now a chief political ally of Duterte's, in fact deputy speaker of the House, Arroyo occupied a curiously exalted seat at the summit, inspiring further dread of Chinese telecommunications people coming.
For its own share of benefits as a triumvir, Russia is being tapped for the commissioning of the Philippine nuclear power plant. The plant was built during Ferdinand Marcos's dictatorship on foreign loans that ballooned to accommodate kickbacks. It was mothballed by Marcos’s democratic successor, Corazon Aquino, in 1986, after the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, in the Ukraine, a satellite of Soviet Russia at the time.
Which makes Philippine-Russian partnership another horror story altogether. – Rappler.com
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