Duterte rides again! | Inquirer Opinion
On The Move

Duterte rides again!

It has been a while since President Duterte made a pronouncement that the international community would have found shocking or amusing. Suddenly, there is now a flurry of publicized musings of Mr. Duterte about the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine that begs for comment.

Mr. Duterte has been saying that the Philippines is neutral on the war of Russia on Ukraine. Instead of clarifying Philippine foreign policy, Mr. Duterte’s statements serve to confuse the minds of Filipinos and foreigners alike. The President is backpedaling on the Philippines March 3 vote together with 140 nations in support of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) resolution that condemned Russia for its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

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This resolution was no ordinary expression of international sentiment. The UNGA emergency meeting was the first of its kind in 40 years, a rare attempt in the wake of another failure of the Security Council to act on a serious threat to world peace, instigated no less by one of its permanent members. In its statement, the Philippines expressed “explicit condemnation of the invasion of Ukraine.”

The Duterte backpedaling was not lost on Marat Pavlov, the Russian ambassador to the Philippines, who quickly sought to lock in the Duterte pronouncement as the Philippine policy on the matter, by applauding the “neutrality” of the Philippines, saying it was “balanced and wise.”

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Pavlov sought to cultivate Filipino support for Russian President Vladimir Putin. Philstar.com published an article by Pavlov on March 17 justifying the Russian “special military operation,” shamelessly putting the shoe on the other foot, saying, “we know for sure that the Kyiv regime, with the help of the US leadership and its Nato allies, prepared a large-scale offensive operation in the Donbas in March 2022.” He adds with a straight face, “Russia has no plans to occupy Ukraine. The Russian military does not carry out missile, air, and artillery strikes against cities and civilians.”

Next, Mr. Duterte swings to the other side, offering to provide the United States the use of Philippine military facilities should the war in Ukraine “spillover” to Asia, apparently to assure the US that the Philippines will honor its Mutual Defense Treaty with the US, which calls for either nation to come to the other’s defense in case of an armed attack by another state.

Here, Mr. Duterte is uncharacteristically generous with his geopolitical wisdom. He believes China “will invade,” presumably the Philippines, if Putin pushes the nuclear button in Europe. If Mr. Duterte is worried about China taking advantage of the European conflict to make its own moves in Asia, learning from the Ukraine example, Mr. Duterte should already help provide effective deterrence by allowing the US strategic, unrestricted, flexible, and long-term use of military facilities in the Philippines such as Subic and Clark.

The most amusing statement coming out of Malacañang is that Mr. Duterte is willing to mediate between Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, but only if the world begs him. I do not know that there is any demand for Mr. Duterte’s exemplary mediation skills. If he has any influence or prestige at all in international affairs, he should use it to help solve intractable problems in Asean’s backyard.

At a personal level, Mr. Duterte tells us how hurt he is that Putin is in trouble because of the invasion of Ukraine. He tells us Putin is his “personal friend.” Apparently, this friendship blossomed over two meetings with Putin in Russia, one in May 2017 that was cut short by the Islamic State siege in Marawi, and a second in March 2019. In Mr. Duterte’s mind, imagined personal feelings and state matters are hopelessly entangled.

With this smoke-and-mirrors act of Mr. Duterte, the Philippines cannot see its way through to intensifying its condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The international condemnation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is also the international condemnation that will prevent Chinese President Xi Jinping from embarking on similar wars of aggression in Taiwan and countries it is in conflict with, including the South China Sea.

It is in this context that the recent pronouncements of Mr. Duterte reveal how lamentably sidetracked Philippine leadership in foreign relations has become. Strategic thinking is temporarily offline in the Philippines.

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TAGS: foreign relations, geopolitics, Rodrigo Duterte, Russia, Ukraine, War
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