Is Duterte remiss in protecting the country’s sovereignty?

When a Chinese military aircraft landed at the Davao International Airport on June 8, 2018 to refuel — with no apparent permission to land — it should have triggered a diplomatic protest. However, according to Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Assistant Secretary Elmer Cato, the aircraft, an IL-76 strategic cargo aircraft, would have to have diplomatic clearance and the necessary permission to land at the airport. “We would have to check with the Intelligence and Security Unit of the Department, which is in charge of issuing diplomatic clearances for all foreign military aircraft entering Philippine airspace,” Cato said. A senior military official then asked Cato: “Where did you get that report [information]? I don’t know that.” Evidently, the Philippine military was kept out of the loop on the reported landing of the Chinese cargo aircraft.

From what transpired between Cato and the unnamed military official, the question arises: Shouldn’t the Department of Defense (DOD) been notified about the Chinese military aircraft landing on Philippine territory? If it were an emergency landing, that would have been understandable. But China’s People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) should have known that if the aircraft needed refueling they should have requested the proper Philippine government agency for clearance to land and refuel ahead of time. But there was no evidence that such process had occurred.

But two days later, Special Assistant to the President Bong Go said that a request for landing was “received, processed, and cleared” by relevant Philippine government agencies. Go explained that technical landings by foreign government and commercial planes are done through close coordination by relevant government agencies, “following established domestic procedure and in consideration of existing agreements.” Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque also issued a statement, saying that based on the records of the Civil Aviation Authority of the Philippines (CAAP), “the Chinese aircraft made a technical stop in Davao City on June 8 for mere refueling. According to the permit granted, the aircraft was bound for Cairns, Australia.”

Protection for Duterte

If the DOD was not privy to clearing the Chinese aircraft to land in Davao City, it makes one wonder if Duterte has a secret understanding with Chinese President Xi Jinping that would allow Chinese aircraft to land on Philippine territory for refueling or any other logistical needs? Could this be one of Duterte’s concessions to Xi who had promised Duterte during his trip to Beijing last May that he’d protect Duterte from any plan to remove him from office? When Duterte arrived in Manila from his Beijing trip, he announced: “The assurances of Xi Jinping were very encouraging. ‘We will not allow you to be taken out from your office, and we will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs’, Xi told me,” which begs the question: What did Duterte promise Xi in return for Xi’s protection? Xi wouldn’t put Duterte under his protective mantle unless Duterte was willing to kowtow to his authority. Could it be that Duterte has placed his country under the vassalage of China or as a protectorate of China?

Last June 12, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, who attended the Philippine Independence Day celebration in Kawit, Cavite, dismissed fears and concerns over the landing of Chinese aircraft in Davao City. He maintained that China followed Philippine protocols regarding the aircraft’s landing in Davao City.

On June 23, China did it again! The same IL-76 cargo plane landed in Davao City. PLAAF sources said the aircraft made a quick pit stop to refuel after participating in a military exercise in New Zealand. Malacañang said that the refueling was cleared by government agencies.

But while most Philippine officials and journalists remain silent on the two refueling incidents, Jose Antonio Custodio, a Filipino defense analyst and military historian, told CNN Philippines’ The Source that it was a way for China to “see how our reactions would be.” “They could have refueled in those artificial islands [Chinese bases at the Mischief, Fiery Cross, and Subi Reefs] they constructed in the seas they stole from us. But they chose to do it in Davao,” he said. “Basically, they’re probing us.”

Conspiracy theories

Custodio doesn’t believe that China had obtained the necessary permissions and clearances. He pointed out that the plane bore Chinese military insignia, which means that it had to pass through an even higher level — the Department of Defense, AFP or the National Security Adviser. Citing reliable military sources, Custodio claimed the Chinese aircraft was in Davao City for “several days,” which was much longer than the time it would need to refuel. There are a lot of questions, but no answers. For instance: What did the aircraft or its crew does during the time the aircraft was grounded for a few days? Were they on a classified or secret mission? Was the aircraft a spy plane? Did they bring some espionage or surveillance equipment to be used by Chinese spies already in the country? Did they bring in a homing device or guidance system to navigate Chinese aircraft, warships, missiles or satellites? Did the crew secretly meet with Duterte?

It is a common knowledge that Davao City is the de facto administrative capital of the country, which explains why China is treating Davao City as the “seat of power,” not Manila? With Duterte exercising his presidential duties from his home in Davao City, Congress is isolated in Manila and detached from the goings on of the Executive Branch, which is operating in Davao City. Indeed, Manila was abound with rumors and conspiracy theories since the Chinese aircraft landing in Davao City, which makes a lot of people wonder: What is China up to?

Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, a former Philippine Navy officer and one of Duterte’s harshest critics, said the aircraft landing in Davao City was “wrong in so many levels.” He questioned why of all the airports in the region [Mindanao], the plane had to refuel in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown. He said, “This is not the first time such a plane landed in Davao City” because a similar one was spotted there “few weeks before [June 8].” He also said, “The fact that it’s a cargo plane, most probably they unloaded some precious cargo. We’re trying to verify on the ground what was unloaded.” He also branded as a “lie” the government’s claim that the plane was in Davao to refuel, noting that it was a cargo aircraft. “Where will this plane go from Davao or where did it come from, except that Davao was the ultimate destination?” he said.

At a crossroads

Custodio said that Philippine independence – or sovereignty — is at a crossroads. “It can choose the path to defend its interests, defend the sacrifices of our forefathers who fought for freedom, or it can go this path and become a vassal state of China,” he said.

“The thing with China is it knows it has its foot in [already]. So [this time] it’s going to bring its entire body in,” he added. “That’s something we have to watch out [for].”

Surmise it to say, the refueling in Davao City could have been be the first step in a series of maneuvers to pierce the Philippines’ sovereignty. Indeed, China has already opened the country’s backdoors in Davao City and established direct communication link with Duterte. All China has to do now is send her troops on the pretense of fighting ISIS in Mindanao. China has demonstrated that its military aircraft and warships could intrude into Philippine territory at will and the Philippine government wouldn’t do anything to stop her.

Xi Jinping knew that he has Duterte on a string. Indeed, Duterte is at Xi’s beck and call. And because of Duterte’s reluctance to go to war against China, if Xi tells him to jump, Duterte would probably say, “How high, boss?” In other words, Philippine sovereignty is rendered meaningless. As I mentioned in my recent column, “Sovereignty without security” (June 1, 2018), “What Duterte is now left with is a sovereign country without security. But as a wise man once said, ‘If you cannot defend and secure the independence of your country, then you are not sovereign.’ If not, what are we then?”

And this brings the issue of sovereignty to the fore, which is: Is President Duterte remiss in protecting the country’s sovereignty?