PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte may have dropped the ball in insisting that Philippine foreign policy pivot to China and is methodically eliminating all means of leverage with which the Philippines could secure its interests against “its larger, more powerful neighbor.”
“He is taking a huge risk, betting all on China’s goodwill and beneficence without the insurance provided by the diversified, multi-lateral support of historical and traditional friends and allies,” said University of the Philippines law professor Jay Batongbacal.
“Over the long term, China unmistakably stands to gain much, while the Philippines’ fate remains uncertain,” said Batongbacal, who was a member of the technical team that helped the government win its claim on the Benham Rise area in the Philippine Sea.
He made the remark as sources revealed to Manila Standard that Duterte canceled the China trip of former President Fidel Ramos after Ramos advised Duterte not to push through with the trip to China if they do not comply with certain conditions.
Instead of heeding Ramos’ advise, sources said Duterte cancelled Ramos’ China trip and personally took control of talks with Chinese officials without even consulting or informing concerned Philippine counterparts.
Batongbacal, also director of the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, stressed that China has already said that it will never negotiate with the Philippines on the basis of the arbitration award.
“According to China, nothing is negotiable on the basis of the arbitration award, but everything is negotiable if it is discarded,” Batongbacal said.
Duterte, he cited, has publicly insisted that he will negotiate with China on the basis of the Arbitral Tribunal ruling and within the international law but recent developments suggest the Philippines may be left with just “paper.”
“[Duterte] has publicly insisted that he will not go out of the four corners of that paper, but at the rate things are going, that is precisely all that will be left: a piece of paper,” Batongbacal said.
“By alienating allies like the United States and Australia; refusing to push through with basic surveillance of the West Philippine Sea, discarding an Asean role; declaring that the Philippines cannot defend its territorial/jurisdictional areas; even exhorting the public to “not dwell” on Scarborough Shoal,” Batongbacal said.
Batongbacal said, Duterte’s upcoming visit to China may formally mark the swing back of the pendulum called Philippine foreign policy.
“The Philippines has steadily and unambiguously provided China with all the concessions it wants in the aftermath of the arbitration: no hype over the arbitral award, withdrawal of patrols from the EEZ, and stepping [and potentially breaking] away from the alliance with the US, as well as other allies.
“At the same time, after a sustained push to get the Asean members to begin standing up to China in the SCS and securing a massive legal victory that could be the solid basis of a united front between claimants, the Philippines has dropped the ball and withdrawn at the eleventh hour to deal bilaterally with China,” Brongbacal said.
Batongbcal said, Duterte’s meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping will be first major test of his “crude and apparently transactional diplomacy”.
“He has bet all his chips on China reciprocating for his abandonment of the previous administration’s strategy for the West Philippine Sea, expecting a concession for Philippine fishing and a windfall of Chinese economic investments,” he said.
Batongbacal warned that if Duterte will return without any concessions, it will be humiliating blow for his part “since he has given practically all the possible political leverage that he had in reserve.”
If Duterte come back with rewards, Btingbacal said his critics and opponents will see him to have succumbed to the power of Chinese economic inducements.
Even Ramos has expressed disappointment with Duterte’s foreign policy tack, particularly after Duterte canceled Ramos’ China after the latter set certain conditions that Beijing rejected, an administration source told the Manila Standard Wednesday.
Ramos, who was appointed by the President as the special envoy to China, advised Duterte not to push through with his presidential visit to Beijing if a consensus was not reached.
While Ramos has not made any statement about the cancellation of his trip, Duterte will still push through with his visit to Beijing next week.
“It’s not clear whether the terms of the visit are still on the table,” the source who asked not be named said.
On Monday, Duterte said he would likely not dwell on the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea.
“Let’s not dwell on Scarborough Shoal because we don’t have the capabilities. Even if we express anger, it will just amount to nothing. We can’t back it up,” Duterte said in Filipino before local government officials in Lamitan, Basilan.
In a recent report published in Manila Standard, a foreign affairs source claimed that the problem was that the advisers who surround Duterte “also think like him.”
“He needs an adviser who can calm his temper. That can only happen if you have a good pool of people not only competent, but with diverse opinion,” the foreign affairs insider said.
Two administration sources confirmed that Duterte is unlikely to discuss the Philippines’ claim over the West Philippine Sea.
In a text message, another official who is privy on Duterte’s official visit to China said that the President will instead ask Xi to help the Philippines in its bloody war against alleged drug users and dealers.
The source also reiterated Duterte’s earlier statement that fishing rights at the Scarborough Shoal are likely be discussed.
The source added that Duterte will not raise as yet the decision by a UN tribunal that threw out China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea in favor of the Philippines.
On Tuesday, both Ramos and Senior Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio scored the Duterte administration’s anti-American foreign and military policy and urged President Rodrigo Duterte to stand for real independence and defend the country’s territorial integrity.
Ramos, an alumni of the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York, said Duterte must learn to reach beyond his personal biases and think of his duties as being a responsibility to future Filipino generations.
“I hope he shows more leadership in our lives. Not only in drugs,” Ramos said in an interview over the ABS-CBN News Channel.
“Although removing the drug menace is one of [the country’s biggest problems], it is not the whole thing,” said the 88-year-old Ramos, who was president from 1992 to 1998.
“I am sorry to say this, President Duterte, my President, our President. That is 20th century thinking. We are now in the 21st century,” Ramos said, apparently referring to Duterte’s references to US atrocities in the Philippines in the early 20th century.
Carpio, on the other hand, urged Duterte to understand the importance of holding patrols within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone during a speech at the closing of amphibious exercises with the United States on Tuesday.
Ramos, whom Duterte credited for convincing him to run for president, said looking to the aspirations of the young and not the historical past should be the mindset of a leader.
“That must not be the mentality of leaders these days,” Ramos said, suggesting that if Duterte can show pictures of Moros killed by Americans, future Filipinos can also show pictures of Filipinos killed by Filipinos, like the Ampatuan, Maguindanao massacre of November 2009.
China claims 90 percent or the whole South China Sea as its own, citing the nine-dash line of its ancient Chinese map.
Aside from the Philippines, parts of the South China Sea are also claimed by other members of the Association of the Southeast Asian Nation including Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia.
On July 12, the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled in favor of the Philippines deciding that China is illegally claiming and continuously destroying the marine environment of the disputed sea.