Winging it

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The officials of the Duterte regime contradict themselves and each other daily and almost by the hour. They have individually and collectively outdone and are outdoing every other administration in the incoherence, contradictions, unreason, and non sequiturs of their declarations. A reality that is arguably as alarming as the lawlessness and the extrajudicial killings that are continuing to ravage the ranks of human rights defenders, political activists and regime critics, it is specially evident in their foreign policy discourse.

Foreign policy should serve and advance national interests, but there is hardly any evidence that that principle guides the regime. The incoherence and contradictions in its approach to foreign relations are particularly evident in the public declarations of Mr. Duterte, whose half finished sentences, profanities, fraudulent claims and even worse logic contribute little if at all to citizen understanding of what his foreign policy is, much less to any illumination of such issues as China’s occupation and militarization of the West Philippine Sea (WPS). 

His latest venture into what is for him the rarified air of foreign relations is illustrative. Speaking in Leyte last week, Mr. Duterte implied that if the United States of America ever declares war against China and even “fires the first shot” it would be defeated by the armed forces of his Chinese friends. He also suggested that, having failed to prevent China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea, the US is egging him on to wage war against that country.

In another mish-mash of claims based on the assumption that only war could have stopped Chinese aggression in the WPS, Mr. Duterte also used the occasion to woo the police and military, whose support he has been courting out of his fears of a coup d’etat, by validating their historic inability to defend this country from external threats by saying that he does not want to risk the lives of “[his] soldiers” to defend Philippine sovereignty.

Although a lawyer, he failed to point out that the Philippines has sovereign rights over those portions of the WPS that are part of the country’s territorial waters and Exclusive Economic Zone as mandated by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and by the 2016 ruling of the UN Arbitral Tribunal.

Mr. Duterte was also gravely mistaken on several counts. He said the US has to make the first move against China before the Philippines can invoke the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Under its terms the Philippines can invoke the MDT if it is under threat. An attack on the Philippines by a third party can also provoke a US response. The latter possibility has in fact been emphasized by both US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo as well as by US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim. Kim recalled Pompeo’s declaration about the US’ commitment to meeting its MDT obligations during his visit to the Philippines earlier this year. The US ambassador was clearly conveying to China his country’s warning that any other “incident” involving its armed forces similar to the June 9 ramming and sinking of the Filipino fishing boat F/B Gem-Vir would “trigger” a US response.

Mr. Duterte has made much of his allegedly “independent” foreign policy as a justification for his bias for China. He wants Filipinos and the world to believe that he’s setting the country free from US influence and dependency. But his blaming the US for allowing China’s occupation of the West Philippine Sea assumes that rather than the Philippines, it is the US that is responsible for the defense of Philippine interests. And quite contrary to his earlier claims, that dependency is actually unabating, with US military aid to his regime even increasing.

Meanwhile, his implication that the US will lose in any confrontation with its imperialist rival is totally baseless. With two million men and women under arms, China does have the largest standing army in the world. But its weaponry is far from as developed as that of the US. Surrounded by US military bases, and its cities vulnerable to long-range US missiles and nuclear bombers, China’s leaders do not want a war they will surely lose, focused as they are on their country’s continuing economic development.

Not that they’re moved by benign means and motives. But the most that country is doing to force others to do its bidding is to intimidate smaller countries like the Philippines over whose military capabilities it has the advantage, and to use its economic power to bring them into its orbit.  But it has also demonstrated its unwillingness and inability to do anything militarily against those countries that have stood up to it, among them Indonesia and Vietnam in Southeast Asia and Argentina in Latin America.

If there is anything consistent in Mr. Duterte’s confused and confusing foreign policy narrative re China, it is his insistence that only war is the alternative to allowing that country free rein in Philippine territorial waters and even to exploit, deplete and destroy the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.

The reality he won’t accept is that, as Indonesia and Vietnam have done, the Philippines could have declared those waters and its EEZ off-limits to other countries while it protests Chinese incursions before world bodies like the United Nations. Unfortunately, Mr. Duterte has already declared the Philippine case lost by saying, even before it does anything, that it can’t win a war against China and that the UN is useless. He has also discouraged the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard from protecting Filipino fishermen by saying he won’t risk their lives to do that, in effect instead risking the lives and livelihoods of the country’s fisherfolk.

Either Mr. Duterte is severely disinformed and fact-challenged about what is at stake for the Philippines in the WPS, or he’s pretending to be so because of some secret pact with China similar to his agreement with its President Xi Jinping to allow Chinese fishermen free access to the EEZ in clear violation of the Philippine Constitution. If the latter is indeed the case, he does have a foreign policy despite suspicions to the contrary— and it can be summed up in one phrase: submission to China no matter the cost to the country of which he happens to be President.

In any case, whether Mr. Duterte’s agreement with Xi was a policy or not was itself another occasion for his own leading officials to contradict each other. His mouthpiece Salvador Panelo said it was binding, but later denied its existence. His Foreign Secretary, who incidentally said “f—k the international community” on Twitter while claiming to be the regime vanguard against stupidity, said it is not a policy, in one more vivid demonstration of the incoherence that characterizes   regime discourse on practically every issue.

The inevitable conclusion is that these worthies are not even talking to each other to get their stories right, let alone consulting each other and even their boss of bosses. But that is not the worst part.

What is chilling is that what pass for foreign and domestic policies in the Duterte administration, rather than based on well thought-out, rational analysis, are merely what happens to cross the mind of  Mr. Duterte as he gropes for words  to justify what he has already decided to do for his, his family’s, his cronies’ and his foreign patrons’ benefit regardless of its consequences to this country, its people, and its future. He’s just winging it in the worst sense of that phrase — and it shows. In the process he has brought this country closer and closer to the brink of total ruin.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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