Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
Screenshot from the video of President Rodrigo Duterte's taped statement during the General Debate of the 75th Session of the United Nations General Assembly (RTVM)

Could Senator Leila de Lima be right? Was President Rodrigo Duterte’s speech as “plastic and (as) fake as the dolomite beach”? Did he did not really mean what he said?

Senator De Lima was primarily alluding to Mr. Duterte’s pre-recorded speech before the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which she compared to the Php 389.8-million “white sand” folly the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) had made out of portions of Manila Bay.

A Duterte critic who has been detained in the headquarters of the Philippine National Police (PNP) since 2017 on drug charges she claims to be politically-motivated, the senator was outraged by Mr. Duterte’s saying in that speech that the 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) denying China’s claims on the West Philippine Sea and recognizing Philippine rights to it is binding, already part of international law, and can no longer be challenged. His declaration, she pointed out, is totally at odds with what she called his four years of “betraying” that ruling “to curry favor” with China.

Mr. Duterte had indeed said in his previous speeches and other statements the exact opposite of what he affirmed in his UN speech. He has argued that the Philippines can do nothing about China’s occupation and militarization of the South China Sea, and declared a number of times that he would not contest it because doing so could provoke a war the Philippines would surely lose.

Among the consequences of that seeming policy have been the hitherto unchallenged intrusions of Chinese military sea craft in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, and their driving Filipino fisherfolk away from their traditional fishing grounds. Some 75 percent of the population have demanded that he do something to stop the behemoth’s assaults on Philippine sovereign rights.

Senator De Lima can’t be blamed for being skeptical of that portion of Mr. Duterte’s speech, the entirety of which, she said, sounded as if he was just delivering it as ghost written for him. She was in effect saying that Mr. Duterte’s ghost writer was just putting words in his mouth and making him say what he thought the UNGA and the international community wanted to hear.

It’s tempting to agree with that view because Mr. Duterte has often said things he later repudiated. He has many times contradicted himself, and even denied that he said what’s already on video, audio recordings and other means of verification. But what challenges Senator De Lima’s allegation is an apparent shift in regime foreign policy that has been discernible over the past few months in the statements of Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr.

On July 3 this year, Locsin — incidentally the most likely candidate for ghost writer of Mr. Duterte’s UNGA speech — warned China of “severe responses,” diplomatic or otherwise, should there be any “spill over” into Philippine territory of Chinese vessels engaged in military exercises in those parts of the South China Sea that are not the Philippines’ own.

The same Locsin — who has ghost written for at least two other Philippine Presidents — said in August that China should “expect the worst” if the missiles fired by its warships during its military exercises enter the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). At about the same time, he also said he would invoke the PH-US 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and ask for United States assistance if China attacks a Philippine vessel in the West Philippine Sea.

And only ten days ago, Locsin told the House of Representatives during hearings on the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) 2021 budget that the Philippines does not agree with China’s demand that Western powers such as the United States be kept out of the West Philippine Sea. He made that statement in the context of the US’ increasingly confrontational military presence in the area that China has denounced as a “provocation.” Locsin said US presence in the area is necessary “as a balancer,” because “the freedom of the Filipino people depends on the balance of power in the South China Sea.”

Equally relevant as a sign of this shift was Mr. Duterte’s September 7 absolute pardon of the US Marine Corps’ Lance Corporal Joseph Scott Pemberton. That decision indicated a departure from Mr. Duterte’s seemingly pro-China course by assuring the US that it can still get what it wants, in exchange for whatever benefits the regime can get from it. Locsin denied that the trade-off involved in the pardon is the Philippines’ being a priority recipient of a US anti-COVID 19 vaccine, and he may be right: what the regime he serves is likely to gain from it will most probably be more than that.

All the above suggest that Mr. Duterte’s affirmation of the 2016 PCA ruling is unlikely to be mere words, or a gesture without meaning. It must be viewed in the context of the shift in his foreign policy, this time away from China, whose occupation and militarization of the West Philippine Sea is completely unacceptable to the United States. The US policy of “full spectrum dominance” over land, sea, air and space and of “containing” China to prevent its rise as another superpower has never wavered whatever party is in power, whether Democrat or Republican, and remains in place today.

Surprised by Mr. Duterte’s declaration of support for the 2016 PCA decision, some may not have believed it, but others may also be wondering what drove him to it. Was it his realization that the US is far, far superior to China militarily, and that the outcome of any confrontation between them is hardly debatable? Was it in anticipation of increased military and economic aid, and continuing US support for his regime despite its despotism and flagrant human rights violations? Was it due to pressure from the pro-US military establishment whose generals have been bridling at Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea?

It could be all the above. But that would not preclude the possibility that Mr. Duterte’s claims to implementing an “independent foreign policy” that would “separate” the Philippines from the US and instead bring it closer to Russia and China were from the very beginning calculated to alarm the US enough for it to shower the regime with the military, economic and political support it needs to keep it firmly in power until, or even beyond, 2022.

If that is indeed the case, it would make Mr. Duterte as shrewd and as cunning as his mentor and idol Ferdinand Marcos. During his 14-year dictatorship from 1972 to 1986, that tyrant played the United States against the now defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the then socialist People’s Republic of China (PRC) to gain political advantage and provoke the three into competing for the regime’s favor in terms of who could best provide it military and economic aid.

Despite his declaration of support for the PCA ruling, which has earned him the praise of his critics, the possibility is that as in 2016 when he managed to win the Presidency by pretending not to be interested in it, Mr. Duterte has once again outwitted analysts, his critics and even his allies. The cruel irony is that as assertive of Philippine sovereignty as his affirmation of Philippine rights over its territorial waters is, it is also another sign that the US will continue aiding and abetting tyrannical rule and tightening its grip on these sorry isles.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Image from PCOO/RTVM.

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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