Right after the Philippine Congress proclaimed Rodrigo Duterte president of the Philippines, Chinese President Xi Jinping didn’t waste any time writing a congratulatory message to him. Elated by Xi’s gesture, Duterte said, “I was honored, receiving a congratulatory message from a great president.”
Several days later, Duterte — who was seemingly buoyed by Xi’s expression of goodwill — remarked that he would not resort to violence. He declared that that his government was “willing to talk with China over the maritime dispute instead of waging a war.” “War is a dirty word,” he quipped. It must have sounded like a sweet melody to Xi. Indeed, he might have felt that his “China Dream” was just about to be fulfilled. But then… several days later, his world turned upside down! The Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) had just handed China a stunning defeat to her claim to 90% of the entire South China Sea (SCS). It seemed like a bad dream, a nightmare! But then he must have realized that it wasn’t a dream. It’s very real.
But what happened next revealed China’s true intent. In an extraordinary move, China went on a diplomatic overdrive and tried to bamboozle the Duterte administration into submission. That was a big – no, stupid! – mistake on the part of the Chinese. They just blew what could have been a productive bilateral relationship, which would have settled their territorial disputes once and for all. Xi would have gotten everything he wanted while Duterte would be happy with a railway in Mindanao. Would it have been an equitable trade? Not by any means. But Duterte’s wish would have been granted – “No war!”
In an article, “Man in the Middle: Rodrigo Duterte Gets a Taste of China’s Heavy Hand,” published in the Wall Street Journal, columnist Andrew Browne wrote: “On the afternoon of July 12, Mr. Duterte was irritated, according to one of his closest aides. He felt China was toying with him.
“A cabinet meeting had just received word live from The Hague of Manila’s stunning victory in its legal challenge to China’s claims in the South China Sea, and after noisy clapping and jubilant fist-pumping around the table the first order of business was to issue a public statement. A minister spoke up: He’d had dinner the previous night with the Chinese ambassador.“That got Mr. Duterte’s attention. ‘Are you already a spy of the Chinese?’ he demanded, in a teasing kind of way, according to the aide who was in the room.
“The minister then relayed a long and detailed list of demands from the envoy about what the Philippine government should say—and not say—when the ruling came out. Anticipating a defeat, China was panicked at the prospect that Manila might issue a gloating statement that would add to its humiliation.
“Mr. Duterte turned serious. What irked him, said the person in the room, was more than just the presumptuousness of the Chinese demands. The president had met with the ambassador [Zhao Jianhua] himself earlier the same day to offer reassurances. ‘Didn’t he trust what I told him?’ asked Mr. Duterte.
“ ‘Between us guys,’ he remarked, ‘I would have said some of those things, but because the [Chinese] embassy wants me to say them, I won’t.’ ”
Diplomatic faux pas
Given Duterte’s volcanic temperament, he must have felt insulted by China’s high-handedness in trying to force him to kowtow to Xi’s demands. But nothing could have been more insulting to him – he grew up a “kanto boy” in an environment that abides by the law of the jungle – than a disloyal underling, the “minister” who dined with the Chinese Ambassador, who handed him a list of what to say and not to say about the arbitral tribunal’s ruling.
Could that “minister” be Perfecto Yasay Jr., whom Duterte handpicked to be his Secretary of Foreign Affairs? Given Yasay’s professional and business background, he appeared to be his perfect choice for the job.
But as it turned out, Yasay wasn’t perfect after all. He committed a diplomatic faux pas that drastically changed the dynamics of what could have been an amicable – albeit unfair – settlement of the South China Sea disputes. However, it could have been a blessing in disguise because it gave Duterte a quick lesson in geopolitics. And as quickly, too, he became his own man, and not somebody’s puppet or patsy.
But Yasay — whose immersion into the treacherous waters of the South China Sea imbroglio has taught him never to jump into boiling water — has been rumored to be on his way out. But last July 19, Duterte doused cold water on the rumor when he released a video statement to clarify Yasay’s status. He said, “I would like to arrest a few rumors going around that Secretary Yasay of the Department of Foreign Affairs is on his way out. I would like to assure the Secretary that he is in good company and there is no truth to the rumor that there is a plan for his ouster, far from it actually.”
Duterte went on to say that he personally pleaded with Yasay to join his administration because of his competence and honesty. But here’s the twist: He said, “Although there’s a caveat. Actually, Secretary [Yasay] accepted the position on the condition that he will only serve for a few months, not even a year because he has contractual obligations to teach, professorial chair, well most universities in the western side… California, Hawaii and somewhere else.” He went on to say that Yasay has “his backing and full support.” But don’t they all say that when someone is just about to be canned?
Last July 14, Duterte said he would send former president Fidel V. Ramos to China to start talks on the PCA arbitral tribunal ruling. In accepting the assignment, Ramos suggested setting aside the arbitral tribunal’s ruling to pursue a “settlement” with China. However, he said that the Philippines should first convene the National Security Council (NSC), which consists of the President, Vice President, Senate President, Speaker of the House, and others who are chosen by Duterte. “There should be a National Security Council [meeting] first, so that the Philippine position can be defined,” Ramos said.
But the whole idea of setting aside the tribunal’s ruling brings to the fore a slew of questions that the NSC has to address, to wit: (1) Could the Philippines bring the tribunal’s ruling back to the negotiating table at a latter time? (2) Would the Philippines recognize China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the SCS? (3) Would the Philippines acknowledge China’s “undisputed sovereignty” over the SCS? (4) Would the Philippines agree to relinquish her exclusive economic zone (EEZ) to China who claims that it is within the area demarcated by the nine-dash line? And (5) Would the Philippines vacate and surrender Pag-asa Island, which is part of the province of Palawan? There are more; however, these, I believe, would be the core questions that need to be answered.
But like all successful diplomatic negotiations, a middle ground has to be reached, and a compromise to be worked out. In other words, the parties have to agree to a “win-win” solution. Can this be achieved knowing that China had time and time again declared that she would not yield an inch of territory?
Indeed, Ramos has his work cut out for him. Let’s hope — and pray — that he’d be able to convince the Chinese that while there is plenty of room for negotiation, there are certain things that the Philippines can’t concede, which are spelled out in the Constitution. And this is the toughest challenge for both the Philippines and China. The question is: Who will blink first? Or, did Duterte blink already?