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Commentary

Paralyzed foreign policy

President Duterte’s remark that he could do nothing about China’s planned construction of a permanent facility on Panatag Shoal was a defining moment in the history of diplomacy. It might be the first time a chief of state refused to take any step to safeguard the territorial integrity of his country. The primordial goal of diplomacy is to safeguard national security, of which ensuring territorial integrity is the most important component.

Mr. Duterte is making a tradeoff: In return for Chinese investments in the Philippines, he is trading away our territorial integrity. It is a bad tradeoff.

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In contrast, Vietnam engaged China in a shooting war in the Paracels and China was forced to withdraw its exploration rig from the area. Nonetheless, Vietnam continues to receive massive investments from China.

There are serious errors in Mr. Duterte’s diplomacy, to wit:

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Investment flows into areas where profits could be made. Politics is a minor consideration. This explains why Vietnam continues to benefit from Chinese investments, or why Taiwan is the biggest investor in mainland China.

There are means short of war to prevent China from militarizing Panatag Shoal, as the Vietnamese have shown concerning the Paracels. The problem is that Mr. Duterte keeps thinking in terms of a shooting war. This is a game of bluff, and the side that gets scared loses. Evidently, from his pronouncements, Mr. Duterte is in the scared side.

Mr. Duterte appears to have engaged in secret diplomacy, in violation of US President Woodrow Wilson’s rule of “open covenants openly arrived at”—the norm for democratic governments. The danger in secret diplomacy is that the stronger power can intimidate the weaker one. China could have engaged in nuclear-weapon-rattling to scare Mr. Duterte, which it cannot do in open diplomacy. Thus, we see two different personalities on stage—Digong blustery and cussing at everybody else, but meek as a lamb before China.

The Philippines has ignored the United Nations option. The UN has already ruled that the West Philippine Sea in which China has encroached is part of our exclusive economic zone. The construction of permanent facilities on Panatag will deprive us of the consequent economic benefits under the UN ruling. Thus, the Philippines could have elevated the issue to the UN Security Council on the ground that it is a threat to peace. China has veto power in the UN Security Council and will certainly veto any resolution in the Philippines’ favor. But we can transfer the issue to the UN General Assembly under the Uniting for Peace Resolution.

The General Assembly does not have enforcement powers. However, under this resolution, all UN members can vote (unlike in the UN Security Council, which has only 15 voting members). If we make the right moves, we can expose China’s false claims that its actions in the West Philippine Sea has the support of the international community. The dispute over the West Philippine Sea is a PR battle at this point. It is essential that the Philippines get the support of the international community.

In this regard, one major problem is that Mr. Duterte used the “f” word on Ban Ki-Moon when the latter was UN secretary general, and has on several occasions labeled the UN as a useless agency. The Philippines has thus violated another basic rule of diplomacy: Never create permanent enemies. Your enemy today could be your friend tomorrow.

Way back in the early 1960s, the statue of Apolinario Mabini was installed in the lobby of the Department of Foreign Affairs building on Padre Faura. It was pointed out that Mabini would symbolize the Philippines’ foreign policy: Like Mabini, we are a physically weak country, and like Mabini, we will use our brain and, through astute diplomacy, survive in a lawless world.

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But some of us pointed out that in the wrong hands, the Philippines’ foreign policy will resemble the paralyzed Mabini. That seems to be our foreign policy now under the Duterte administration.

Hermenegildo C. Cruz was Philippine ambassador to the United Nations in 1984-1986.

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TAGS: China, panatag shoal, President Duterte, South China Sea, Vietnam
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