Like thieves in the night, the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) crew moved into the Roxas Boulevard baywalk on the night of April 27 and removed a statue that was put up only last Dec. 8 to honor the comfort women of the Philippines, women who were used as sexual slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
The statue had been put up with funds raised by Tulay, a Chinese-Filipino organization, together with other groups and individuals who felt the need for such a monument. The statue had a marker from the National Historical Commission explaining its purpose. Even foreigners, Japanese included, have noted the memorials put up in the Philippines to honor the Japanese soldiers killed during the war, and the very few significant memorials for Filipino victims.
The statue to honor comfort women drew a protest statement early on from the Japanese Embassy, and this is believed to be the reason it was removed. The DPWH has said the move was temporary and that the statue, along with two others, had to give way to allow drainage improvement in the area. President Duterte, who had first said he could not interfere in the issue but also expressed concern about “antagonizing other nations,” has since announced he would not object to the statue but only if it were put up on private property.
Similar statues have been built in other cities in the world, notably in South Korea, China and Australia, and each time such a monument was planned, there would be a flurry of statements on change.org supporting or protesting it. Of the statues that have been put up, none was ever removed, including one in San Francisco in the United States, which led Osaka to sever its sister-city ties with it.
Which brings me to the topic of Asian brinkmanship (also spelled “brinksmanship”). The term was first used by US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in the 1950s, at the height of the Cold War. Dulles was quoted in a newspaper interview with this definition for the term: “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is a necessary art.” He was well aware of the risks involved: Pushing too far would get you into war, but if you ran away from the situation, you would have lost a war without even fighting it.
I’ve wondered if our own government needs to hone its skills in brinkmanship—or blinkmanship, which I will explain shortly.
Ironically, our weakness in brinkmanship might come from following a US model, which tends toward getting belligerent very quickly. I see it even in the day-to-day transactions of the government, or even the private sector, in which someone is quick to threaten legal action whenever something goes wrong—again a legacy of the American penchant for litigation, complete with 24-hour deadlines.
But we are like toothless tigers when we do that. To use the Filipino term, “wala tayong k”—we don’t have the “k,” which can mean karapatan (right) but can also mean the power, the wherewithal, to carry out our threat.
Asian political theater
The other extreme, capitulating immediately, happens often, as it has in the case of the comfort woman statue. We blink first, too quickly, forgetting that politics is a stage, with scripts. The Japanese had to protest the statue—that’s their duty, their “script.” But we took them literally, and this sends the bad signal to other countries that we can be easily bullied. If we had stood our ground, the Japanese were not about to pull out their investments or go to war with us.
Brinkmanship can be more complicated in Asian settings, and we’ve been seeing that in the peace initiatives between South Korea and North Korea. As in so many other political events in our region, what we see is not just Asian brinkmanship but Asian political theater. This should not be surprising, especially in East Asia, where rules of etiquette and protocol, even for the simplest matters, are so very complicated.
Let me digress and use a Chinese lauriat (banquet) as an example. Protocol indicates that you get food for the person next to you if he or she is older or of higher social status. When you do that, though, they will vehemently protest: “Kaigi, kaigi” (Let me serve myself), the local ethnic Chinese would say. If you’re not familiar with the protocol, you would stop serving the person, which could actually lead, not to war, but to gossip that you don’t know your manners.
There are many more lauriat rules, all the way up to the payment of the bill. It can lead to some really funny skirmishes, with the guests trying to beat each other in paying. In the end, the bill might even be paid by a person from another table, not part of your party but someone who feels that your table has VIPs who need to be honored.
One big lauriat
Politics is one big lauriat. It’s not just scripts but the use of elaborate symbolic acts and settings. You can still catch up on YouTube to see this piece of Asian political theater from last Friday in the Peace Village of Panmunjom. You will see North Korea’s Kim Jong-un stepping over into South Korea, then inviting South Korea’s Moon Jae-in to step over into North Korea.
Kim and Moon moved back into South Korea under the watchful eyes of contingents of soldiers … none of whom were in military uniform. Even the honor guard became a theatrical performance of old Korean martial movements, without the uniforms.
Nothing escaped the attention of protocol officers who knew that one misstep could destroy the elaborate brinkmanship. The mousse served for the first meal had a map of a reunified Korea, including an island that Japan had claimed to be its own. Yes, the Japanese government protested.
The theater in Panmunjom was the product of months of brinkmanship, involving more than North and South Korea. There has been praise for US President Donald Trump, whose hard line on North Korea is said to have been a factor in convincing Kim to return to the peace talks that were started, only to fail, several times in the last few years.
But there’s more to this than North and South Korea, and the United States. Kim visited China before the Panmunjom meeting—a gesture that recognized China’s continuing role in working toward peace. Japan, which had formerly occupied Korea, seemed to have been sidestepped, but early this week Japan announced that it would host a meeting on May 9 that would include Korean officials as well as Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on various matters, but notably the peace negotiations. Later in May, or early in June, Trump is to meet the two Korean leaders; a Southeast Asian country was originally proposed as venue, but now it seems it might again be in the demilitarized zone.
Now that’s reason to worry, Trump being unfamiliar with Asian brinkmanship and political theater.
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