China and Duterte: Too close for comfort

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Greg B. Macabenta

Posted on March 29, 2017

My late boss, Tony de Joya, chairman of Advertising & Marketing Associates, had a classic description of a condom:

“It gives you a feeling of security while you are being screwed.”

I was reminded of this upon reading about the results of President Rodrigo Duterte’s state visit to China, as reported by The Philippine Star:

“The Philippines has garnered $24 billion worth of investment and financing agreements in one of the most controversial and lucrative state visits of a Filipino leader in recent history.

“Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez said President Duterte’s three-day China trip, which was accompanied by a big business delegation, resulted in several investment and financing agreements that summed up to $24 billion, of which $15 billion are investment projects and $9 billion credit facilities.”

The bonanza is expected to generate at least two million jobs, the story added.

Another news item that reminded me of the condom analogy read:

“China will build two bridges across the Pasig River as part of the $10-billion investment package agreed upon by President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a result of the renewed vigor in bilateral cooperation between the two countries.”

Duterte apparently could not contain his undying gratitude for China’s generosity: “China has promised us, for all their goodness... to build two bridges over the Pasig River. Free. Gratis. And I bow in gratitude.

“In spite of this good news and seeming to contradict the saying, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth,’” three prominent individuals have offered Duterte what amounts to unsolicited advice:

Reacting to Duterte’s comment that China could not be prevented from constructing an environment monitoring station on Scarborough Shoal because the Philippines cannot afford to go to war with the Asian behemoth, Senior Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio chided:

“The President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces which are expressly tasked by the Constitution to defend the national territory.”

Assuming that “the Philippines is no match to China militarily” Carpio suggested five things Duterte could do, first of which is to “file a strong protest” against China’s activities.

“This is the least that the President should do,” said Carpio.

But the most stinging advice that Carpio gave was: “Avoid any act, statement or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. This will preserve for future generations of Filipinos their national patrimony in the West Philippine Sea. Any statement that the Philippines cannot stop China from building on Scarborough Shoal actually encourages China to build on Scarborough Shoal.”

On the other hand, business leader Ramon R. del Rosario, Jr., in an opinion piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, that began with an upbeat assessment of the Duterte government, pointed out three areas of concern, the second of which states:

“A second major area of concern is the long-term cost of our subservience to China. By all means, it makes great sense to be friendlier and to develop strong economic partnerships, but treating our sovereignty lightly as if it were a tradable commodity is ill-advised and will greatly cost our country in the long run.

“On this issue, I think the administration would benefit from former president Fidel V. Ramos’s idea of convening the highest level of leaders to formulate the appropriate policies and strategies to govern Philippine relations with China. President Duterte may mean well, but he will surely benefit from the perspectives and experience of other leaders.”

And, finally, came this social media posting by former Parañaque Congressman Roilo Golez, about Benham Rise, an area claimed by the Philippines but which China appears to be eyeing covetously:

“Benham Rise is so big that while it is in front of Aurora and Isabela, its southern edge is near Real-Infanta, Quezon and Bicol peninsula. We should all call on the government to protect and develop Benham Rise. In my opinion, Real is the most ideal place for a Naval and Coast Guard Station as a home base for navy and coast guard ships that will continuously patrol and protect Benham Rise. It is a port sheltered by Polillo and close to Metro Manila for logistics and ships there can easily go to the West Philippine Sea in case they need to redeploy.

“I believe China is interested in our Benham Rise and should be stopped at once. They deny their interest but we should not believe China. The Chinese fooled us in Mischief Reef, fooled us in Scarborough Shoal. We should not allow China to fool us in the case of Benham Rise. Ingat Pilipinas!”

Golez might as well have said: “The Philippines is being screwed!”

And what would be the equivalent of the condom? Well... two bridges across the Pasig (“Free. Gratis,” to quote Duterte). And $24 billion worth of investment and financing agreements.

Duterte has not yet unleashed a torrent of profanities over the unsolicited advice given by Carpio, Del Rosario, and Golez and it is unlikely that he will do so. He will likely let this advice go in one ear and out the other, the way he responded -- or did not respond -- to the comments of former President Fidel V. Ramos on Duterte’s style of governance.

But ignoring these well-meaning comments may be almost as bad as shooting off a barrage of cuss words. The fact is that, as Golez bluntly points out, “The Chinese fooled us in Mischief Reef, fooled us in Scarborough Shoal. We should not allow China to fool us in the case of Benham Rise.”

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana shares Golez’s concern. Lorenzana told media that “security officials are worried because a Chinese survey ship was spotted criss-crossing the underwater plateau (Benham Rise) for a period of up to three months last year.”

The Chinese have, expectedly, denied any illicit intentions towards Benham Rise, pointing out that they were simply “exercising innocent passage,” something allowed under the rules on freedom of navigation, by which “ships may sail inside the exclusive economic zone of a third country if it is beyond its 12-nautical mile territorial waters.”

But Lorenzana, a retired Philippine army major general, is not convinced. Said he to the press: “Alam mo naman ’yung innocent passage, Point A to Point B. Napakabagal eh. Tapos tumitigil sa isang lugar. Magtagal doon ng ilang araw. Lipat naman sa kabilang lugar. So that is not innocent passage,” he said.

(We know innocent passage, it’s Point A to Point B. But the Chinese ship was very slow. It was stopping in one area to stay there for a few days. And then it would transfer to another area. So that is not innocent passage.)

Despite his defense chief’s apprehensions, Duterte said that the Chinese government had, in fact, alerted him on their plan to sail through Benham Rise.

“We were advised way ahead but we have the right to ask ‘how are things going? What is your purpose?’” Duterte said in a press conference. He belittled the concerns, describing them as “exaggerated.”

Pinalalaki lang yan (They’re making a big thing out of it).”

Duterte also expressed enthusiasm about the Philippine’s rosy relations with China: “Things are getting great our way. Why spoil it?”

I guess it’s below the dignity of a Supreme Court justice, a prominent businessman, and a former congressman to remind the President of the Philippines about the Machiavellian use of a condom.

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.