By Melinda Quintos de Jesus
I KNOW I had written about the importance of words, especially in governance. But maybe we are making too much of President Duterte’s words. Maybe we should not take any of it too seriously, these emotional outbursts, even about grave matters, especially when dealing with foreign policy and international relations. After all, he takes back some of things he says.
Indeed, we have been asked not to resort to “haka-haka” as we may end up misinterpreting him. His team of interpreters massage presidential statements so they can press out some alternative meaning, divine a different message. His chief foreign policy official incredibly asks us not to fix on his words, as we may miss the message. Another official called the media to switch on their “creative imagination.” Can we get any sillier?
When it comes to foreign policy, we are still in the realm of rhetoric, words flowing, stream-of-consciousness, from a deep well of anger about historical hurt and the need to right them. He still echoes his campaign mantra and hails himself for the change he brings, speaking as though he were the first to right past wrongs and to champion national interest. His pronouncements sound as though he had discovered the value of sovereignty.
In China, he said to his hosts and the Filipinos in his audience that he was “separating” from the US, not just in military but also in economic matters. He also said he would form “a triumvirate with Beijing and Moscow against the world.” This latter is surely a “first.”
His key officials cannot undo the damage of his words on the country’s international standing. Despite his about face on the threat of “separating” from the US, Japan, where Duterte is visiting this week, insists on clarification. Japan relies on a strategy that involves key roles for both the US and the Philippines, so officials there are uncomfortable with loose language.
According to a regional analyst, even China is not impressed by Duterte’s talk of separation, as they know he cannot untangle his country’s security agreements by fiat.
So, his bluster may have been just a lot of chest-thumping for whoever enjoys this kind of performance. But even just on this level, his words move forward a false narrative that must be corrected.
Duterte has thrown insults at the US, the American president and other officials, asserting that from now on, he will deal with foreign countries only to serve Philippine interest. Pundits have fallen over each other to say how all this talk makes Duterte a game changer. When he complained about the historical injustice that Filipinos suffered during the US war of conquest and colonization, historians were soon pulling out references to the tragedies in Balangiga in 1901 and Bud Dajo in 1906. Even after gaining our independence in 1946, two years after the end of the World War II, we were hardly in a position to stand up to the hard bargains the Americans imposed to secure parity and basing rights for decades to come.
Indeed the misdeeds and abuse of colonizers are imprinted deep in the hearts and minds of a conquered people.
But it is weird to listen to President Duterte talk as though Fil-American relations were made up only of the colonial period and his pivot to China. International relationships are made through history and not one single issue or event sums up the total reality.
But for the record, he is not the first to stand up to a foreign power to chart the nation’s destiny. A long line of heroes had done so. He is not even the first politician to question the dominant role of the US in our foreign relations. Through the fifties and the sixties, the most eloquent language, free of curses and insults, was heard on the senate floor from among the likes of Recto, Tañada and Diokno. As for a China pivot, Duterte’s much admired hero, Ferdinand Marcos, had preceded him, traveling to China and Russia to establish diplomatic relations with the two Communist countries before the Cold War had thawed.
In more recent history, Filipinos were deeply divided about whether the US bases should remain on Philippine soil. As the treaty providing for American bases were about to end, Corazon Aquino began negotiations with the US, standing up to the tough talking team from Washington even as a divided Cabinet made the process more difficult. In the end, the Philippine Senate resolved not to renew American basing rights amid shock waves that shook the region as well as Washington, forever changing the context of relationship between the two countries. ASEAN countries which benefitted from the security umbrella held by the bases over the region were aghast that America’s former colony could throw out the bases.
The removal of American bases was emblematic of the coming of age of the relationship between the US and its former colony in the Pacific. With the bases gone, Washington lowered its diplomatic profile in Manila and other levels of engagement. A journalist no longer felt the need to check with US Embassy sources the views of Washington D.C. on Philippine policy debates. One did not have to care too much about visiting officials from the Capitol. For one thing, there were fewer and fewer of these. The global view had changed all around.
Filipinos should also appreciate the decision of the previous administration to file a case in the arbitration court as an act of an independent and sovereign government. It did so without unleashing angry words. No ties were broken, a vibrant trade persisted. A well considered move, it was supported by the entire government. Without military might with which to respond to China’s incursion in Philippines seas, Filipinos sought an international instrument with which to protect its territorial integrity and won, not just the decision but the respect of freedom loving nations.
Flashpoints, including a military standoff between Chinese surveillance vessels and a Philippine warship in 2012 led both the US and Philippine governments to forge a more recent treaty, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), upheld by the Supreme Court and questioned only by some in the Left. These allow the building of facilities and the assignment of up to 75 American troops on a rotational basis, working with the AFP.
Hardly a return of the old basing agreement, America’s pivot to Asia has been welcomed by countries in the region as a balancing force to China’s power. In Duterte’s mind, however, this is still a residual form of dependence. Duterte has said more than once that joint military exercises with the US will come to an end.
How independent does a country become when it courts the estrangement of traditional allies?
Rationalizing his comfort in dealing with China, he points out that the Asian power had never conquered the Philippines. It is clear he ignores the build up of Chinese military outposts “the size of some of our cities” on our shoals and seas. Chinese forces have prevented small Philippine fishing boats from these waters. After the visit to China, the Duterte government admits it still has to negotiate to restore fishing rights of Filipinos in our own waters. Filipinos should submit this so-called independent turn to closer scrutiny.
Those critical of Duterte’s open hostility to the US are not necessarily against efforts to explore stronger ties with China. Indeed, no one aspect or issue is ever hardly “the sum total of a relationship” as Duterte’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs likes to remind critics. But the pivot to China is revealed for what it is by the president’s language and the use of terms so disrespectful as to offend and disturb all of our other allies, including Japan.
The President needs help. He needs to learn certain things. He needs to listen more. And the media can help.
Duterte’s press conferences are numerous enough to create a comfort zone between the subject and journalists. Reporters should resist the rant by inquiring directly about the point of his statements and its implications. Their questions should broaden the perspective with facts and even, arguments. News accounts should not repeat without correction mistaken views, false data and dubious claims.
Journalism is more than an exercise in recording. Given this kind of president, the public needs the media to use their privileged place to prevent a leader from taking us to troubled times and tragic outcomes.