Barangay geopolitics: ‘Bobo ba tayo?’ | Inquirer Opinion

Barangay geopolitics: ‘Bobo ba tayo?’

Barangay geopolitics ‘Bobo ba tayo

Wisdom can often come from the unlikeliest corners. Over the past few years, Sen. Cynthia Villar has emerged as the most “memeable” figure in the country. Late last year, she captured media headlines anew with her distinct brand of spicy interventions. During a hearing on the Philippines’ food security and dependence on imports of fertilizers, the veteran senator correctly asked in a mixture of Filipino and English: “Why should we import? Why don’t we buy our own to give jobs to our fellow Filipinos who are suffering?”

In a proper exercise of comparative development analysis, she lamented: “[W]e have [reportedly] lost to Vietnam, we have lost to Thailand, we have lost to Indonesia [in development terms].” The punchline was the rhetorical question: “Bobo ba tayo? (Are we that stupid?)”

The same (rhetorical) question comes to mind whenever I hear about former president Rodrigo Duterte’s antics and the bonkers ideas coming out of his club of pro-Beijing influencers. The former president’s foreign policy outlook is, to put it charitably, nothing short of “barangay geopolitics,” namely, it’s a hopelessly naïve and parochial worldview that lacks any proper understanding of our national interest and the rough texture of contemporary international affairs.

To begin with, apologists of the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” between Duterte and China not only feign innocence but even pretentiously project strategic maturity by emphasizing the supposed wisdom of retaining the status quo over the Ayungin Shoal. But anyone with a functioning gray matter and a single pulse of patriotic heartbeat would know that had we not fortified BRP Sierra Madre, our de facto base over the contested shoal, China would have ended up occupying yet another Philippine-claimed land feature. For heaven’s sake, haven’t we learned anything from losing the Panganiban Reef and Panatag Shoal? Bobo ba tayo?


Moreover, there are few things as preposterous as calling for neutrality in regional affairs, given that (i) we have a treaty alliance with one of the two superpowers and, even more importantly, (ii) we are directly embroiled in territorial disputes with China with a clear risk of direct confrontation. Allies can’t be neutral but, more crucially, we can’t be neutral in our own disputes! Bobo ba tayo? Third, the Duterte camp keeps on harping on the need for diplomacy. I completely agree, because that’s like saying “water is wet!” Of course, we need diplomacy, since no one wants war, including China. But diplomacy without any leverage is tantamount to capitulation. Only fools think that a rising hegemon will concede on territorial and maritime issues based on polite talk and subservience.

Lest we forget, the former president secured, to put it precisely, zero real concessions in the West Philippine Sea and zero big-ticket infrastructure investments from China. Similar to our neighbors, who stood their ground in the South China Sea and made their redlines clear to China before getting large-scale investments, we need to secure Beijing’s grudging respect before proper peace negotiations.

Fourth, I do agree that we shouldn’t be overdependent on the US. After all, Washington has lots on its plate, hence the tens of billions it has been handing out to allies from Eastern Europe to the Middle East and Northeast Asia. Good to see an expansion in their defense aid to the Philippines, but even the Jordans and Pakistans of this world have managed to get more modern defense equipment from the US. This is why we need to reach out to a broad network of partners from South Korea, Japan, and India to Australia, the United Kingdom, Germany, Spain, Turkiye, and France to bolster our defensive capabilities and strategic capital.

Finally, we need to be more innovative in defending our sovereign rights. Let’s develop, for instance, our own counterpart to China’s salami-slicing strategy by, among others, letting the Philippine Coast Guard and civilian agencies take over resupply and guarding missions in places such as the Ayungin Shoal, with the Philippine Navy and our allies hovering just over the horizon.


After all, the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty is applicable to any lethal attacks on our coast guard vessels—and China will look even more like a bully if it attacks our civilian agencies in the disputed waters. In short, we should stop listening to fools, jettison strategic complacency, and start upping our game as a nation.

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