Choosing enemies and friends
President Duterte’s determination to prevent foreigners from offending the country’s dignity and sovereignty deserves support. But we need to understand his priorities. Was the participation of a 71-year-old Australian nun in a protest rally a graver offense than Chinese infringement on Philippine rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ)?
Photographs showing Sister Patricia Fox with a political placard and a microphone drove Mr. Duterte to order her immediate investigation. He declared that, as a foreigner, she could not claim the right of free speech, accorded to citizens, to criticize him. Such criticism amounted to maligning the government, insulting the people and “trampling” on the country’s sovereignty. A zealous Bureau of Immigration forthwith picked up and detained Sister Pat and subsequently ordered her deportation.
Photographs of Chinese military planes landing on Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, after two weeks, has provoked no impassioned denunciation from Mr. Duterte or Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano. And now, China has installed missiles on three Philippine reefs, justifying the deployment as designed to protect its sovereignty over geographical features within our EEZ, the claim which the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague rejected in 2016. China had dismissed this decision and continued to deny Filipino fishermen access to traditional fishing grounds in the Scarborough Shoal. It even accelerated its reclamation program, completing projects on seven reefs within Philippine EEZ that have degraded the marine environment and now has militarized international waters.
And when Mr. Duterte raised the possibility of the Philippines prospecting for oil and gas within its EEZ, Xi Jinping threatened war. But it was Sister Pat, not Xi Jinping, who provoked the President’s rage and the warning not to “mess with the sovereignty” of the country or to “treat the Philippines like a mattress there to wipe with your feet.”
No one expects or wants Mr. Duterte to berate Xi Jinping, for whom he has professed love and admiration, the way he did Sister Pat. Some people crave pizza, others prefer paksiw. In cuisine, as in the choice of friends and enemies, there is no arguing with taste. But his enemies are not necessarily the enemies of the entire nation. There is grave danger when differences on policies are projected as personal attacks, especially if the bully pulpit of the presidency and the coercive powers of the state are used without due process against the president’s perceived enemies.
Despite Mr. Duterte’s personal rapport with Xi Jinping, China remains the foreign country least trusted by Filipinos. This worries presidential spokesperson Harry Roque, who pleads for Filipinos to give China more time to prove its friendship. His assurance that we would later thank China when it turns over to us lands it reclaimed within our EEZ drew incredulous laughter from Asean colleagues at a gathering in Kuala Lumpur. Can a senior government official who speaks for the president be so totally naïve? Or, is it his countrymen he considers so naïve that they will swallow anything he tells them?
But Mr. Roque takes his cues from the President, who would prefer mothballing South China Sea issues for a century. So does, apparently, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., who declared that internal security problems should take precedence over maritime disputes with external powers. Sister Pat presumably exemplifies the internal threat that must be vigorously suppressed.
Mr. Duterte has reportedly told the prime minister of Vietnam that, “in due time,” he would address the South China Sea issue. Playing for time is a strategy, but time is not on his side. Mr. Duterte, on his own, cannot win the South China Sea battle. But he can lose it by himself. Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio has repeatedly warned that the Philippines can forfeit the game, when leaders disdain the use of available legal and diplomatic tools to assert the righteousness of its cause in the court of international public opinion. Unfortunately, many of his colleagues in the Supreme Court are more interested in hunting for missing SALNs.
Mr. Duterte may be comfortable with the idea of the Philippines becoming a province of China, or may believe that bartering our EEZ for Chinese aid and loan packages is a good bargain. As president, he can argue this case. But is this a decision that any president can unilaterally and irreversibly make for the Filipino people? Where are our other leaders?
Edilberto C. de Jesus (edcdejesus@ gmail.com) is professor emeritus at the Asian Institute of Management.
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