Commentary: From dragon poker to whisperer

A NEW leaf has been turned in our relationship with China. From a dragon poker, our country has now become a dragon whisperer. Thanks to the visionary leadership of the current chief architect of our foreign policy, President Rodrigo Duterte, we’re now veering away from the dangerous path the Aquino administration took us –- to a better, saner, and more peaceful geopolitical path.

Duterte’s foreign policy shift is grounded on reframing China from an enemy we must destroy into an adversary we must win over.

Former President Benigno Aquino 3rd compared China’s stance in the South China Sea to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Sudetenland. He didn’t do it just once, but twice: first in 2014, during an interview with The New York Times; and second in 2015, while delivering a speech before businessmen in Nazi Germany’s former ally in Asia – Japan.

This framing of China invites a very belligerent policy. How else should the world respond to another Nazi Germany other than the use of force?

For Aquino, our conflict with China is a battle between good and evil. In Living on Borrowed Times: Conversations with Citlali Rovirosa-Madrazo, sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called this framing the “religionization of politics.”

Religionization of politics, Bauman explained, turns

conflict of interests calling for negotiation and compromise…into an ultimate showdown between good and evil that renders any negotiated agreement inconceivable and from which only one of the antagonists can emerge alive.

Mention “negotiated agreement” with China to anyone supporting Aquino’s foreign policy line and you’ll be accused of being anti-Philippines.

Duterte framed China differently. He didn’t see China as an evil we must destroy but a neighbor we must co-exist peacefully with, a market we must tap, and a possible partner in the further development of our country.

For Aquino, our conflict in the South China Sea seems to define the entirety of our bilateral relationship with China. For Duterte, that conflict is just a tiny aspect of it. The joint statement of the Philippines and China after Duterte’s détente (relaxation of strained relations) mission to Beijing in October 2016 emphasized it: “Both sides affirm that contentious issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship.”

Vice President Leni Robredo is singing the same belligerent tune of her partymate.

In a speech she delivered on June 12, 2018, during a forum on the South China Sea disputes at the University of the Philippines, Robredo stated that China is the most serious external threat to the Philippines since World War 2:

If China successfully solidifies its presence within its nine-dash line, the Philippines will lose effective control over its exclusive economic zone, which is larger than the land area of our country. This is why China’s encroachment on Philippine territories is the most serious external threat to our country since the Second World War.

It’s both an ignorant and dangerous statement.

In my column of June 14, 2018 (“Ignorance, confusion, deception”), I already clarified that there’s no such thing in international law as “effective control” of the exclusive economic zone as this area of the sea cannot be appropriated as territory. That’s what makes Robredo ignorant.

What makes her dangerous is her identification of China as an enemy, not just a rival, but an enemy equivalent to what Japan was to us during World War 2.

With that identification, one can easily infer that the framework of Robredo’s foreign policy strategy is not so different from Aquino’s, which is not just the containment but the rollback of China from the South China Sea.

This is way different from the foreign policy strategy of rapprochement and engagement with China that the Duterte administration has been pursuing.

Duterte’s track is one of conciliation built on identifying China as a friend with whom we have a disagreement. With this framing, issues that arise along the way are considered as wrinkles that could be ironed out with persistent pursuit of diplomacy. Compromise is the eventual goal.

Meanwhile, Robredo’s track is one of confrontation, with China seen as a threat. As such, issues that arise along the way aren’t wrinkles that could be ironed out but further evidence that China is an ever-growing threat. Hence, we must act to stop that threat. No compromise.

Her historical invocation of World War 2 is quite telling. Despite her invocation of “peaceful protest,” we all knew what policy was used to defeat the most serious threat our country had during WW 2: war. That was what the United States did to Japan in the 1940s in order to roll back its presence from the South China Sea region.

Fortunately, Duterte is our president and not Robredo’s running mate, Mar Roxas, who vowed to continue Aquino’s foreign policy line. Instead of poking the dragon, Duterte coaxes it. And in a span of just two years, he seems to be successfully finding the proverbial one soft spot of every dragon. The improvement in the situation in the Scarborough Shoal is the evidence.

SINCE he began fishing in the Scarborough Shoal in 2000, they were operating freely there, said one of the fishermen presented by Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque in a June 11, 2018 press briefing. Then April 2012 happened: a seven-week naval stand-off between China and the Philippines ensued as a result of the miscalculation and poor conflict management by the Aquino-Del Rosario foreign policy regime. The Scarborough Shoal remained inaccessible to our fishermen until Duterte changed our country’s approach to China — from being a dragon poker to its whisperer.

 

The incident in the Scarborough Shoal could have been better managed if the Aquino administration already strengthened the bilateral consultation mechanism and continued the confidence-building we had with China. The Philippines vs. China arbitration decision on jurisdiction released in October 2015 tells the story of how our country seemed to have rejected China’s offer to do that.

On January 14, 2012, Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio of the Department of Foreign Affairs and her Chinese counterpart, Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, had a consultation meeting.

In that meeting, the Philippines proposed the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation as an actionable framework to address China’s nine-dash line claim. We also insisted on multilateral talks, which would include Asean countries, not all of which have anything to do with the territorial conflict in the South China Sea. One of the agenda of our country is for the Philippines and China to define which areas are disputed and non-disputed.

China expressed some worry that non-bilateral mechanisms “will only add to the mistrust” between the Philippines and China. It repeated its position: “It is our long-standing position that the dispute in the South China Sea should be properly resolved among parties directly involved through peaceful negotiations.” As a counter-offer, China invited the Philippines “to start negotiations…in a bilateral way and take stock of the current dispute and problem,” and for the two countries to start discussing “the establishment of a China-Philippines maritime consultation mechanism or resume the confidence-building mechanism.”

Instead of exerting efforts to find the middle ground, which by the way is the purpose and essence of diplomacy, this is what Basilio said: “As enunciated by our Foreign Minister when he met with Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, they agreed then to keep the matter to rest, to put the matter to rest because obviously, the Chinese position, is diametrically opposed to the Philippine position.”

So, after explaining the divergent positions of the Philippines and China, Basilio just said: “Let’s leave it at that but as our Foreign Minister has always stressed that we set that aside, we set the West Philippine Sea issue aside…”

Three months after that meeting between Basilio and Liu, the Scarborough Shoal incident happened. If we had an established bilateral mechanism with China, it could have been activated to de-escalate the incident. And if there were confidence-building measures prior to the incident, China and the Philippines would have already developed a sufficient level of trust necessary to make the bilateral mechanism work. Aquino would not have resorted to backdoor diplomacy headed by a senator whose history is in conflict escalation.

Even during the previous administration, there was already an opportunity to be a dragon whisperer. But its foreign policy regime resorted to poking the dragon.

Duterte started turning the situation around the moment he won as president, before his inauguration.

As reported by “Aksyon News 5” on May 25, 2016, Zhao Jinhua, China’s Ambassador to the Philippines, said that during his meeting with Duterte, the latter “raised the issue [of Filipino fishermen]to [him], personally.” Zhao’s impression of Duterte was “he cares about the poor people — the fishermen.” And as confirmed by the fishermen that News 5 interviewed at the time, the Chinese Coast Guard no longer chased them away.

Duterte’s rapprochement with China deepened when he led a detente (easing of hostility) mission to China in October 2016. One of the fruits of that mission was the establishment of a bilateral consultation mechanism, which was activated during the Scarborough incident this year.

Reacting to that incident, Zhao said: “In English there is a saying, ‘Even in the best regulated families, accidents happen.’ So, we always have bad apples but if we have bad apples, you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to throw into the South China Sea and feed to the fish.”

This statement shows that the bilateral consultation mechanism is actually working. Instead of China just downplaying or ignoring the incident, as it had during the previous administration, the Chinese ambassador released a strong statement, categorizing some of their citizens as “bad apples’ that should be thrown into the sea and be fed to the fish.

So, what changed between the Aquino administration and the Duterte administration? Simple: The latter knows what it’s doing.

(Published in two parts in The Manila Times on 21 June 2018 and  26 June 2018 )


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