Grassroots & Governance

Newly minted senator and former police chief Bato de la Rosa must be smiling with glee at the President’s declaration that he will revoke the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the USA if they do not issue a US visa to his good friend and fellow Davaeño Bato de la Rosa. OMG, a huge foreign policy switch on behalf of his friend who wants to make a personal, not official, visit to the USA.

For the sake of Bato, who says he just wants to visit his relatives in the USA, we now get more and more vulnerable to China, which has been violating our sovereignty (despite its being affirmed by the UN Arbitral Court) over our West Philippine Sea. The VFA (which is a more honorable agreement with the USA than the military bases which we used to house for them in our territories), it seems to me, is crucial as a deterrent to other alien powers which may have designs over our territories, which even now has been manifested by the growing power that is China.

Because this small and weak government has chosen to deal with the great power that is China on a bilateral rather than multilateral basis, China can ignore the ramming of small fishing boats by their fishing (militia?) vessels. The fishers were merely out to make a living and to provide protein for our people! China, as far as I know, has not apologized for the abandonment of our victimized fishers who could have drowned in our own waters, were they not rescued by the dauntless Vietnamese. (The Vietnamese people, after all, once defeated their colonists, France and the mighty armed forces of the United States of America. And they have also managed to fend off attempts by China to dominate them, even fearlessly sending their armed Coast Guard to confront the Chinese vessels encroaching into their own territories. The Chinese, according to the news, retreated!)

As usual, the presidential spokesperson explains as an afterthought that President Duterte had many reasons for the decision to abrogate the VFA. That it was not just in exchange for a US visitor’s visa for his friend. The President, it was alleged, had merely reached the end of his patience with the US following a series of offenses against his prerogatives as the chief executive of our country. These include some US senators’ resolutions against politicians for the unjust detention of Senator Leila de Lima.

The President cannot seem to get out of his Davao Mayor mindset, even when it comes to foreign policy. No matter what his spokesman says, Duterte himself, no less, had announced his decision to abrogate the VFA unless the USA issues a visa for his fellow Davaoeño (who is the mastermind behind Oplan Tokhang in which law enforcers knock on a suspected drug trafficker or drug addict’s home to persuade them to surrender and stop their illegal activities, which is alleged to have led to killing sprees against suspected barangay-level drug users and pushers, most of whom were young and poor).

We are a small and poor nation with, however, a strategic location that powerful nations are attracted to. If we are using our heads and trying not to get overrun by any of these great military and economic powers, we have to be cunning and sly. It seems to me, accepting China’s preference for bilateral negotiations is the dumb thing to do. Multilateralism is a way of avoiding wars, and therefore of promoting peace. It is also a weapon that the weak can resort to to avoid being bullied by more powerful nations. There is, after all, power in numbers. And the United States happens to be the most powerful county, militarily and economically, in the world. Why can’t we maintain a vestige of support from them? After all, we do have a Mutual Defense Treaty, which is the basis for the VFA. We don’t have to kowtow to either the US or China. We just need to balance their influence against each other, for our own sakes.

We have won our case in the UN Arbitral Court; but this government has preferred to ignore our victory. Indonesia has chosen to assert our victory as a beneficiary of the nullification of China’s claim of a nine-dash line entitlement. A mere cabinet member actually sent a bomb to some Chinese vessels and caused them to retreat from Indonesia’s own territorial waters. Shame on us!

As once-upon-a-time chair of the ASEAN, we threw away our opportunity to mobilize support for our sovereignty over our marine territories. After all, it was the Philippines that filed for and won the sovereignty case at UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Instead, we seem to have become China’s spokesman in the ASEAN, practically replacing impoverished Cambodia which has become a de facto colony of China. How far will our own obsequiousness go?

I am disappointed in Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s seeming support for Duterte’s declared intention to abrogate the VFA. It seems to me that he should know better.

Where, oh where are the statesmen in our country? We used to have them in plentiful stock: Tanada, Pepe Diokno, et al. Let us hope that at least the advocacies of Retired Justice Antonio Carpio, Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, and UP Associate Dean Jay Batungbacal will bear fruit, at least among the youth, someday.


Teresa S. Abesamis is a former professor at the Asian Institute of Management and Fellow of the Development Academy of the Philippines.