Monday, May 30, 2016

Duterte’s honeymoon with China begins

Like all relationships and marriages, both parties will try to work, or live, harmoniously and reconcile their differences, if any.  This is called the “honeymoon” period and it could last for a long time or it can be abbreviated depending on how they relate to each other.  It may sound simplistic, but they hope that by the time the honeymoon is over, they’d remain married, partners, allies or friends.  Nobody could predict the denouement of their relationships, but as someone once said, “There are no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests.”

It did not then come as a surprise that America’s enemies during World War II – Germany, Japan, Italy – became her allies, and her allies USSR and China became her enemies during the Cold War that followed World War II.  And these alliances – North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and U.S.-Japan Security Treaty – have endured for more than 65 years.  And today, NATO has become the bulwark in the defense the 28 NATO countries against enemy invasion, which is crucial to the U.S. national interests.

And in Asia-Pacific, the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty has become a formidable deterrence against Chinese expansionism.  Other treaty allies of the U.S. in Asia-Pacific are South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand, and the Philippines.   These alliances form a line of defense along the First Island Chain – linking Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, and Borneo -- which would deter China from breaking out into the Western Pacific.

Choke points

To prevent China from breaking out, the U.S. has to have a strong military presence in Japan and the Philippines, where she can control two major choke points to the Western Pacific.  These are the Miyako Strait between Okinawa (Japan) and Taiwan, and the Bashi Channel between Taiwan and the Batanes Islands (Philippines).  With several air force bases, a naval base, and 50,000 U.S. troops stationed in Japan, the U.S. maintains strategic dominance over the Miiyako Strait.  But it is a different situation in the Bashi Channel, which is wide open and defenseless.  However, the U.S. had shown interest in deploying her forces to the Batanes Island and the Laoag City airport in northern Luzon.  If the Philippines agrees to this proposal, it would shut off the Bashi Channel from Chinese intrusion… and effectively makes the First Island Chain impenetrable.

Recently, the Philippines and the U.S. agreed on the locations for four American air force units and one army base under the U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperative Agreement (EDCA), which was signed in April 2014.  In addition, the former U.S. Subic Bay Naval Base is a frequent destination for U.S. warships while the former Clark Air Base is used to host American surveillance planes that keep an eye over the South China Sea.

It’s interesting to note that EDCA was signed as an executive order under the Aquino administration.  As such, it can be terminated by the incoming administration of presumptive president Rodrigo Duterte, who considers himself as a left-of-center politician.  However, he admits that he had been on friendly terms with the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which makes one wonder: How is he going to deal with China in regard to the territorial disputes in the South China Sea?

Bilateral talks

It is no wonder then that a week after Duterte’s landslide victory last May 9, China’s ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua paid him a courtesy call in Davao City. Zhao congratulated him on his victory and expressed his country’s expectation of working with his administration to “properly deal with the differences, deepen traditional friendship, and promote mutually beneficial cooperation, so as to bring the ‘bilateral ties’ forward.” 

Obviously, Zhao was referring to “differences” on the South China Sea territorial disputes, which the Philippines under the Aquino administration had submitted to the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration.  It challenged the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea under the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  However, China refused to recognize the authority of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and indicated that she will reject its decision on the matter.                                    

As Duterte’s “honeymoon” with China begins, there would be a lot of posturing by both sides.  But the crux of the dispute is China’s iron-clad claim to her indisputable sovereignty over the South China Sea demarcated by the “nine-dash line,” which has no fixed coordinates simply because it was arbitrarily drawn on a map in 1947 by China’s Nationalist government under Chiang Kai Shek.  China considers the South China Sea as one of her national core values, which are “non-negotiable.”

If Duterte were to initiate bilateral talks with China, he’d be faced with a dilemma. China had in the past offered joint development in the Spratlys.  However, she has one pre-condition: That the Philippines concedes to China indisputable sovereignty over the Spratlys.  If China sticks to this pre-condition and Duterte accepts it, the Philippines must vacate all the islands she occupies in the Spratlys including the populated Kalayan Island Group (KIG), which is part of Philippine national territory as defined in the Philippine Baselines Law (R.A. No. 3046, as amended by R.A. No. 5446 and R.A. No. 9522) and in Article I of the 1987 Constitution.  This would be a violation of the Constitution, which is an impeachable act.  Either way, the honeymoon would be over before it started, which begs the question: What would be Duterte’s next step?

Junk EDCA?

Faced with pressures from militants to scrap EDCA, Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Duterte will be confronted with the problem of national security.  While he had said during the campaign that he was willing to junk EDCA, he is now saying that his administration will continue EDCA since the external defense of the country is weak.  Indeed, with no warships and no warplanes to defend her territory, the Philippines would be at the mercy of China.     

And once American forces are out of the Philippines – again – what do you expect China would do next?  One needs to remember that when the Philippine Senate removed the American bases from Philippine soil in 1992, China took possession of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef within two years, without firing a shot.   With the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal completely controlled by China, the province of Palawan -- which is less than 100 miles from the Spratlys -- would be an easy target. China could then claim that the Chinese had been in Palawan since ancient times.  And like what she did with the Spratlys, Scarborough Shoal, Paracel Islands (claimed by Vietnam), and Senkaku Islands (claimed by Japan), she would probably come up with another “ancient map” showing Palawan as part of her territories.   And pretty soon, the Philippines could become a vassal or client state of China, which would effectively deprive the Filipinos of their sovereignty.


Bully vs. bully


Duterte, street smart – or “kanto boy” -- as he is, should know that it takes a bully to fight a bully.  He should also be aware that size matters.  In other words, a little boy cannot fight a big bully.  So what the little boy would do is to call his big brother.  In the case of the Philippines, Duterte would turn to big brother America, a bully bigger that China, for help.  And this is where EDCA, MDT, VFA, and LSA would level the playing field.  


At the end of the day, one might say that Duterte’s honeymoon with China would just be an exercise in futility.  But the lesson learned would provide him with a clear direction of how – and where -- he should lead the country in the next six years.   



Monday, May 16, 2016

Duterte: Strongman with a soft spot

Some would say that presumptive President-Elect Rodrigo “Rody” or “Digong” Duterte is a leftist, which he admits.  Some say he is a communist, which he denies.  Others say he is pro-China.  And a few say he could be the new “Amboy” – that is, “America’s Boy.”   Honestly, nobody knows that much about his brand of politics.   

Who the hell is Digong then?  With so many contradictions on what he had said during the campaign, one might say, “This guy is enigmatic!”  He’s got a little bit of the brashness of Donald Trump—which he denies.  “Trump is a racist, I am not,” he said.   He’s got a little bit of the unpredictability of Vladimir Putin.  Hmm…  He’s likened to the benevolent dictator Lee Kuan Yew, which he’d probably say, “Heck, I’m better than Lee!”  Some say he’s like the late President Ramon “The Guy” Magsaysay, the most popular president the country ever had.  And some see him as a real-life embodiment of the movie character “Dirty Harry.”   The locals call him “The Punisher” for his zero tolerance against criminals.  And what you’ve got is Trump, Putin, Lee, Magsaysay, and “Dirty Harry” all wrapped into one.  

Yes, Digong is popular with the masa – common people -- but feared by criminals.   It’s the alchemy that forms a brand of “political populism,” one that justifies populism to achieve a political end.   And it works best in a country mired in poverty and corruption.  It is no wonder then that when he promised to eradicate crime in three to six months, only a few casts doubt that he could do it without declaring martial law, but the majority sees it as flicker of light at the end of a long, dark tunnel.  In their minds, if Digong were successful in transforming Davao City from the “Murder Capital of the Philippines” to the safest city in the Philippines and “one of the safest in the world,” then that is good enough to give him their votes.  Forget that some skeptics don’t believe these statistical claims, but when the residents of Davao City feel safe, then these become “facts” unless proven otherwise.  And who among his political rivals have the credibility to challenge his claims?   


Fighting corruption


When Duterte entered the presidential race last November, he promised to fight corruption.  “If I will become president, corruption has to stop,” he said.  He added that it has been bleeding the nation dry and pushing the people deeper into poverty.


When he was asked if he could really do it, he said he gained his experience of fighting corruption when he worked as a prosecutor for the Tanodbayan, the predecessor of the Ombudsman.   He said that he “hounded” the corrupt when he was a Tanodbayanprosecutor.  “Once upon a time, I was one of only two Tanodbayan investigators in Mindanao.”  With a tinge of populism, he would tell government officials not to shortchange the public.  “Don’t grab from people’s mouth what they are about to eat. What is theirs is theirs,” he’d remind them.   His passion for the masa gives him credibility that he is capable of fighting corruption. 


During the last days of the campaign, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV dropped a bombshell accusing Duterte of enriching himself while in office.  Duterte then opened his bank account to public scrutiny to prove that there was only P17,000 in it, not P211 million as Trillanes had alleged.  His quick response added credibility to his character.


By contrast, when Vice President Jejomar Binay, one of his presidential rivals, vowed to fight corruption and go after corrupt officials, nobody believed him.  And when asked to disclose his bank accounts, Binay refused. How could the people believe him when he has several plunder charges filed against him before the Office of the Ombudsman, and secretive about his wealth?  He has zero credibility.  


Economic growth

Not content with outgoing President Benigno Aquino III’s economic growth of an average of 6 percent, Duterte plans to pursue a growth of 7-8 percent or higher. “If we want to reduce the poverty rate, we need a higher growth,” his spokesman Peter Laviña said.   And this begs the question:  Can he do it?  Yes, he can.  However, as what had happened in the administrations of Aquino and his predecessor Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who have sustained high economic growths, it did not alleviate the suffering of the poor.  In spite of the Philippines’ high economic growth – it’s the “best economy in Southeast Asia today” -- poverty and hunger are on the upswing.   Why?    


In 1973, World Bank president Robert McNamara spoke about poverty, saying: “Despite a decade of unprecedented increase in the gross national product of the developing countries, the poorest segments of their population have received relatively little benefit [because] rapid growth has been accompanied by greater maldistribution of income in many developing countries.”  He went on to say that “the growth of GNP is essentially an index of the welfare of the upper income groups. It is quite insensitive to what happens to the poorest 40%, who collectively receive only 10-15% of the total national income.”


It wouldn’t take a social scientist or economist a long time to figure out that this was exactly the problem the Philippines faces today, which is: maldistribution of income.  Add corruption to the mix and the outcome is: The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.   Indeed, if there is one challenge that Duterte will be faced with, it’s how he’s going to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor?  To find the answer, one has to look at our Asian neighbors, the so-called “economic tigers.”  If there is one measure of their success, it’s their growing middle class, which increases as the lower class decreases. 


It’s noteworthy to mention also that a lot of social scientists are of the opinion that corruption creates poverty, not the other way around.  If Duterte makes good of his promise to fight corruption, he’d have a good start in fighting poverty as well.  And with his empathy for the poor, Duterte could feel at ease in starting a peaceful political and economic revolution.   


Platform for success


Duterte has a three-pronged platform that he plans to implement in the first six months of his presidency, which his spokesman Peter Laviña had outlined as follows:


1. Pursue a 24/7 fight against drugs, criminality, corruption, and poverty;


2. Call on Congress to pass a law for the election of members of a Constitutional Convention to undertake a “major rewriting” of the 1987 Constitution.  The objectives are to institute a shift to a federal parliamentary form of government, and to ease the current restrictions on foreign ownership of land, public utilities, educational institutions, and participation in the exploitation of natural resources; and


3. Pursue negotiations and forge peace agreements toward political settlements of the protracted armed conflicts both with the Left revolutionary forces and the Muslim rebel organizations.


One might say that his platform is ambitiously quixotic.  But he has one chance to succeed.  If he fails, he’d finish his term just like most of his predecessors – mediocre.  If he succeeds, he’d be looked upon by generations to come as the Father of the Sixth Philippine Republic.   But he can only achieve that if he remains what he is today: a strongman with a soft spot for the masa.