[OPINION] Ano ang gusto ninyong gawin ko?

“What do you want me to do?” 

President Rodrigo Duterte's question related, not to the pandemic, but to the Chinese intrusion into the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ), when he faced the nation on April 19.

He connected the two issues, alluding to the country’s debt of gratitude to China for its donation of “free” (?) vaccines, despite earlier government denial of holding the West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue hostage to Chinese vaccine diplomacy. 

The question was not an invitation to a collaborative approach to governance, as would have been warranted and welcome. Independently issued statements by former Cabinet officials, Philippine Military Academy alumni, the academe, business sector, and the Senate had made clear what they wanted: a more coherent, stronger defense against Chinese threats to the Philippines.  

The angry rant against critics that followed the question showed that Duterte was not interested in opinions different from his own.  Spokesperson Roque confirmed that Duterte remained fixed on forging warmer ties with Beijing, justifying his decision as a matter of “executive privilege.” Since Duterte is no longer campaigning for reelection, he will “make the right decision, even if it is not a popular decision.” Roque was half-right; survey data for over 20 years  shows that the majority of the people wanted the policy the elite has openly endorsed.

Duterte admits his lack of competence  on public health issues and his dependence on medical experts. He is not as modest about his mastery of international law, asserting his exclusive right to determine the country’s foreign policies and provoking  political and constitutional issues. 

Can the President unilaterally terminate the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States, without the participation of the Senate. Can a verbal agreement with Xi Jinping suffice to permit Chinese vessels, in the context of historical rights, to undertake commercial fishing in Philippine EEZ and  legally constrain our Coast Guard from protecting our resources? Why should traditional usufruct rights entitle the PRC to drive away Filipinos,  exercising their own historical rights to fish in its own EEZ? 

More modesty would be helpful. In the context of a more complex, Asian-centered Cold War II, countries are reviewing the management of their national security interests, often working with academic policy centers and international consulting think-tanks. French and English naval vessels are now showing their flags in Asian waters. Nations historically allergic to Great Power military alliances are reconsidering their options. The virtual meeting of Indo-Pacific Quad Leaders (Australia, India, Japan and the US) and the Biden-Suga Summit in Washington, D.C., are building the foundations for broader multilateral cooperation.

'Duterte Doctrine'

Meanwhile, Duterte is managing international relations as though he and Xi were the only players that mattered, as in a two-person game of sungka, where the number of sigay shells and the moves are fixed.  

Others are using experts and computers to conduct simultaneous chess games, with uncounted strategic variations, where even pawns can play decisive roles. After China reasserted its claim to sovereignty and jurisdiction over the Spratly Islands, Pag-Asa and Panatag Shoal and the relevant waters, the President responded at the April 28 pandemic task force briefing with the Duterte Doctrine.

Duterte believes that a “singular act” during the NoyNoy Aquino presidency forfeited our claim to the WPS. In 2012, when Philippine and Chinese naval vessels faced off in the waters of Scarborough Shoal, the US mediated an arrangement for both forces to withdraw. The Philippines complied with the agreement. China did not. According to Duterte, the Philippine withdrawal from the area allowed China’s “constructive occupation” and effective possession of the WPS. 

Hence, it was the Aquino administration that “lost” the WPS and unfairly confronted him with a done deed and the choice between submission to the status quo and war.  Had he been president in 2012, Duterte assured the people that he would never have withdrawn from the area. Should the   2012 confrontation  ever happen again, he would not retreat. If China starts drilling for oil in the WPS, he would send his gray ships to get a share of the resources that rightfully belongs to the Philippines.  

No other country, especially after the 2016 UN rejection of China’s 9-dash line, recognizes China’s occupation of the WPS. Duterte’s dismissal of the arbitral award as worthless paper promises is confounding. Both the Department of Foreign Affairs and the defense department base their protests on Chinese aggression on international laws. He would rather rely on his personal rapport with Xi Jinping. 

Thin red line

So, what is this  “best for the country” policy? Friendship with Xi, avoidance of war, and protection of potential oil reserves are important factors, but how do they fit into policy or strategy?  Perhaps Foreign Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin can explain.

The contingencies that would require promised action from Duterte are unlikely to happen before his retirement in 2022.  They simply draw a thin red line so generously permissive that China can continue what it is doing in the WPS: depleting fishing stocks, destroying the environment and denying access to Filipino fishermen.  Until, at its convenience, it decides to erase that thin red line.  

Duterte, not as the Gutless, but the Guiltless, untainted by the WPS crisis, and Duterte as Peacemaker, protecting the people from war, spins the narrative the president is selling to the people. It is a narrative that serves to justify inaction and the abdication of duty.

A lame duck president with barely a year left in his term threatens by executive privilege to diminish the nation’s  sovereignty, devastate its patrimony, and constrain its capacity for redress for generations.  

China must be hoping for a 2022 electoral outcome that would install Duterte proxies who will perpetuate this narrative and approach. What are the odds? Seven senators from the ruling coalition signed the statement condemning Chinese aggression in the WPS. Thirteen coalition colleagues  kept their pens in their pockets. – Rappler.com