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It’s not everyday that someone would call the most powerful leader in the world a “moron” or anything close to that.  But that’s what Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did.  And for those who don’t know what it means, the Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “moron” as a “very stupid person” or “a person affected with mild mental retardation,” which then begs the question: Is Donald J. Trump a moron? 
 
But whatever you might think about it, the real reason Tillerson called Trump a moron is actually “terrifying” as the Daily Beast reported the incident on October 4, 2017.  It reported that the insult came one day after "a meeting about Afghanistan in which Trump compared the process of reviewing strategy in the country to the renovation of a high-end New York restaurant." It then said that NBC News reported that “Tillerson called Trump a ‘moron’ after a meeting concerning the US' nuclear arsenal in which Trump asked for 10 times more nuclear weapons.”
 
According to NBC News, the meeting was in July and Trump’s “insane request” was apparently in response to information Trump was given about the US’ steady decrease in nuclear weapons since the late 60’s. The officials at the meeting were said to be surprised by his request, and had to explain to Trump “the legal and practical impediments to a nuclear buildup.” 
 
The NBC News reported further that Trump said several times that he also wanted more troops and military equipment.  But officials told NBC News that no increase in the nuclear arsenal is planned.  Soon after the meeting ended, the officials who stayed behind overheard Tillerson say that Trump was a “moron.”  When a reporter asked Tillerson to confirm if he called Trump a “moron,” he didn’t dispute it.  
 
But what might sound “petty” is a serious problem… a very serious problem, considering that the person referred to as a “moron” is the most powerful man on earth who has at his disposal more than 5,000 nuclear warheads.  And he wanted to increase that number tenfold?  This man is not only a “moron,” he is the “Moron-in-Chief.” And he must be crazy, too! 
 
Dr. Strangelove
 
Which reminds me of the 1964 movie, “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.”  It is a political satire black comedy film that satirizes the Cold War fears of a nuclear war between the Soviet Union and the United States.
 
Although the Cold War is now over, the specter of a nuclear war is still very real.  With North Korea threatening to attack the U.S. with a barrage of nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, it has driven Trump closer to the brink of madness and self-destruction.  The sad part of it is that the whole humankind would suffer, nay perish.
 
In less than a year in the presidency, Trump has reduced the world’s only superpower to an impotent eunuch denigrated by rogue states like North Korea and Iran.   
 
When Trump addressed the U.N. General Assembly with a threat to “totally destroy North Korea” if the U.S. is forced to defend itself or its allies, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong-un responded: “I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire.”  Kim’s personal response marked an escalation of the word war between Trump and Kim.  North Korea’s state-run news agency KCNA then released the following statement: “The mentally deranged behavior of the U.S. president openly expressing on the UN arena the unethical will to ‘totally destroy’ a sovereign state, beyond the boundary of threats of regime change or overturn of social system, makes even those with normal thinking faculty think about discretion and composure.”  
 
So, where is all this hyperbole leading?  With North Korea conducting 19 missile tests and one nuclear test in 2017, North Korea is getting closer to its goal of developing a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile that could target the U.S.  North Korea is now believed to possess 60 nuclear weapons. 
 
Trump’s miscalculations
 
But North Korea’s nuclear blackmail is only the tip of the iceberg.  While the threat can be neutralized at a very high cost in lives and resources, there are a number of Trump miscalculations that could change the world order.
 
In my column, “Trump’s geopolitical miscalculations,” (May 12, 2017), I wrote: “But the worst in Trump’s miscalculations in Asia was his decision to pull out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a security and economic agreement between 12 countries led by the U.S.  Seven of the member-countries hail from the Asia-Pacific: Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam, of which four are ASEAN members (Brunei, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam). Collectively, the TPP member-countries account for 40% of world trade.  Ironically, it was the U.S. under the presidency of Obama who started the negotiations among the 12 countries.  Unfortunately, while 11 countries ratified TPP in 2016, the U.S. Congress under Republican control failed – or refused – to ratify it in the last few months of Obama’s presidency.  When Trump took over, withdrawal from TPP was one of his first acts – victims of his vindictive assault on policies and programs that Obama implemented.”
 
China fills the void
 
 With the U.S. out of the “big picture,” it is anticipated that China would step in to take the place of the U.S. in the TPP.  It’s ironic that TPP, which the U.S. was instrumental in forming as a counterbalance China’s dominance in world trade, would end up circling in China’s orbit.
 
But while the TPP might hurt the U.S.’s trade relations, there is nothing more destructive than Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the agreement last June.  The agreement was adopted by consensus by representatives of 196 parties at the 21st Conference of the Parties of UNFCCC in Paris on December 12, 2015.  To date, 195 members have signed the agreement, 168 of which have ratified it.  By Trump’s withdrawal, the U.S. will join two other U.N. member countries – Syria and Nicaragua -- that haven’t signed on.
 
On October12, 2017, Trump brought his war to the home front, launching an assault on Obamacare.  He issued an executive order that stopped payments worth billions of dollars to health insurers to subsidize low-income Americans.   It was a move health insurers have warned will cause chaos in insurance markets and a spike in premiums.   
 
The following day, Trump did what he’d been threatening to do and that is: pull out of a deal freezing and reversing Iran’s nuclear program if Congress and U.S. allies do not agree to strengthen it.  In trying to justify his decision, Trump said: “As I have said many times, the Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into."  
 
Sad to say, what Obama put together in the eight years he was president, Trump dismantled them in eight months.  And it would probably take another eight years –maybe more -- to put them back together. As someone once said, “Rome wasn’t built in one day, but they were laying bricks every hour.”  In the case of the U.S., Trump is burning it, day after day.  And he fiddled while doing it.
 
 
 
 
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Recently, Sandy Cay, a sandbar near Pag-Asa Island, a Philippine territory in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratlys, became the center of contention between President Rodrigo Duterte and Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio.  

 

In a statement released to the press, Carpio said Chinese Navy ships and other vessels have encroached in the Sandy Cay’s 12-nautical mile territorial waters. “In short, Sandy Cay is a Philippine land territory that is being seized, to put it mildly, or being invaded, to put it frankly, by China,” he said. 

 

Carpio was referring to information that Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano disclosed from his sources in the military stating that China has deployed two frigates, one Coast Guard vessel, and two large fishing vessels, with their maritime militia, within three miles of Pag-Asa Island.

 

Carpio said President Rodrigo Duterte and Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano have the constitutional duty to defend and protect Philippine territory. “The very least that they could do now is to vigorously protest this invasion of Philippine territory by China,” Carpio said. “If both are courageous, they should send a Philippine Navy ship to guard Sandy Cay and if the Chinese Navy ships attack the Philippine Navy vessel, they should invoke the Philippine-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).”  MDT is a 1951 treaty that binds the two countries to come to the aid of each other if attacked.

 
“If Sandy Cay becomes Chinese territory, it will reduce by a third or more Pag-asa’s territorial sea, depending on how large a reclaimed area China will create out of Sandy Cay,” Carpio said.  “It will also prevent the Philippines from extending the territorial sea of Pag-asa to include Subi (Zamora) Reef.”  

 

National security

But National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. – a retired four-star general – defended his boss, saying: “China has not seized sandbars in Pag-Asa Atoll. There should be no alarm on that, as long as they don’t occupy any of the sandbars. There are many Chinese as well as Vietnamese fishing boats in and near Pag-Asa Island.”  That’s very strange because of his military background and key role in the “national security” of the country, he should be the first to come to the defense of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.  Instead, he capitulated.

And to add insult to an injury, Foreign Secretary Cayetano defended China’s incursion – nay, invasion – of Sandy Cay.  He reportedly said, “The presence of [Chinese] ships alone does not mean anything. … There [are] reasons for certain presence of certain vessels, but the situation in the area is very stable. There is no situation there that is a cause of lowering mutual trust between all of the claimants at this point in time.”  Which makes one wonder: where did he get his training or experience in foreign affairs and diplomacy?  From what is understood, his appointment as Foreign Secretary was his reward  -- “consuelo de bobo’ – for his blind loyalty to Duterte when he ran and lost as Duterte’s vice presidential running mate in the 2016 elections.  But rewarding him for his unquestioned loyalty is one thing; but putting him in charge of the country’s diplomatic relations with the rest of the world is, to put it mildly, irresponsible.

 

But it was the commander-in-chief himself who surrendered control of Sandy Cay to the Chinese.  “China assured me [Duterte] that they will not build anything there. I called the Ambassador [when I read the news]. He said, ‘We will assure you that we are not building anything there.’ Why would they risk invading a sandbar and get into a quarrel with us? [What will they get out of it?]  But didn’t the Chinese promise that they will not militarize the artificial islands they built around seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago – on Philippine territory?  
 

But the most ridiculous – and downright stupid – reaction came from no less than Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Joel Garcia who said, “As what the Secretary of Foreign Affairs [Cayetano] mentioned earlier, if it does not affect our sovereignty, specifically the areas where we have sovereign rights, I don’t think the Chinese vessels are violating international law.” I can’t believe that the top honcho of the Coast Guard who is in charge of defending the country’s territory has no idea what “sovereignty” and “sovereign rights” mean.   

 

Silence is deafening

 

With all this hullabaloo going on, the ultimate guardians of the country’s territory, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana (a retired three-star general) and AFP Chief of Staff Eduardo Año (a four-star general) are uncharacteristically quiet.  Why the quietude?  Which makes one wonder: are they under a gag order? 

 

Indeed, their silence is deafening except for the AFP spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, who has the unenviable “PR” job of justifying the unjustifiable.  In response to a reporter’s question at a Malacañang press conference, he said: “We will work to clarify all of these things [at] the bilateral consultative mechanism,” which is the regular dialogue between the Philippines and China, covering various issues, including territorial disputes.  My reaction? Hahaha… 

 

But I really feel sorry for Padilla, who is paid to do a “snow job.”  But if he does well in defending the indefensible, he just might earn his second star and move up the food chain.  But at whose expense?

 

Indeed, the military is virtually grounded, with no apparent contingency plan to defend Philippine territory.  With no warships and an air force that consists of a few trainer fighter planes, the country is at the mercy of China.  Duterte admits it and China knows it.  All Duterte can do was curse, “Putang ina! Na-leche na naman tayo ng Tsina!”  [Son of a whore!  China screwed us again!] 

 

The same is true with the nationalist and leftist groups, who are akin to the “three mystic monkeys” – “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil.” An example of which was when a U.S. Navy drone, believed to be used for reconnaissance, was recovered in waters off Masbate in central Philippines in January 2013.  It didn’t take too long for Filipino protesters to gather near the U.S. Embassy in Manila to denounce the U.S. government for violating the country’s sovereignty.

 

In contrast, the Philippine government’s silence on the Chinese invasion of Sandy Cay demonstrates its lack of resolve to protect Philippine territory from foreign invasion.  Duterte’s reason for not confronting Chinese incursion into Philippine territory is that he saw no reason for the Philippines to go to war with China over a disputed sandbar in the West Philippine Sea. 

 

“Why should I defend a sandbar and kill Filipinos because of a sandbar? China assured me that they would not build anything there,” Duterte said during a press briefing in Malacañang. Well, it’s just a sandbar; however, China can build a militarized artificial island like it did with seven reefs and shoals a few years ago.

 

But didn’t he realize that Philippine-U.S. MDT covers attack on Philippine warships wherever they may be, including international waters?  It is for this reason that China couldn’t attack or expel the BRP Sierra Madre – an old dilapidated World War II-vintage U.S. LST vessel, which was deliberately grounded at the Ayungin Shoal in the Spratlys to serve as the Philippine Marines’ outpost to assert Philippine sovereignty over the region.    

 

In my article, “What price sovereignty?” (January 20, 2014), I wrote: “Would the Philippines disallow American military presence needed to protect the sovereignty that we hold so dearly? But without U.S. presence, our sovereignty would be exposed to Chinese imperialistic advances. It’s a dilemma that the Philippines has to grapple with. Simply put, the Philippines cannot have it both ways. Sometimes you got to give a little to gain strategic advantage.”

 

Isn’t it time that we assert sovereignty over what is rightfully ours?

 

(This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

 

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On May 23, 2017 while President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte was enroute to Moscow for a five-day visit, the rebel group Maute struck.  At about 2:00 PM, the Battle of Marawi began.  At least 500 members of Maute attacked a Philippine Army brigade stationed at Camp Ranao in Marawi City.  They were seen rampaging through the streets waving ISIS black flags.  While in Moscow, Duterte declared martial law at 10:00 pm that same day. He cut short his visit after meeting his new friend Russian President Vladimir Putin for a short time. 

 

Last June 2, Duterte complained about the quality of “secondhand” American military hardware. “I will not accept any more military equipment that is secondhand. The ones the Americans are giving, I do not want that anymore,” he said  He threatened to form alliances with China and Russia and asked them to provide weapons to the Philippine military. 

 

But a few days later, on June 5, the U.S. handed over  – I mean, given free -- $150 million worth of brand-new weapons that included 300 M4 assault rifles, 100 grenade launchers, and four M134D Gatling-style machine guns that can fire thousands of rounds a minute.  The U.S. Embassy issued a statement, saying: “This equipment will enhance the [Philippine Marines'] counterterrorism capabilities, and help protect [troops] actively engaged in counterterrorism operations in the southern Philippines."

 

The Pentagon also confirmed the presence of 50 to 100 special-operations forces that were providing technical support to the Philippine Marines.  Another force of 300 to 500 U.S. military personnel are involved in providing regular bilateral training, exercises, and other activities.  However, in a press conference, Duterte claimed that he didn’t ask for the American weapons and found out their presence in Marawi after they had arrived.

 

Battle of Marawi

Today, with the battle of Marawi intensifying, the Philippine spokesman confirmed the Philippine military’s deaths amounted to the biggest single-day loss in the fighting. "There were intense firefights, house-to-house gun battles," the spokesman revealed during a press conference in Marawi.  He added that the government suffered 58 casualties and more than 20 civilians killed.  It was estimated that 10% of Marawi is still under the Maute group’s control.   Tens of thousands have fled the city, with more than 200,000 people displaced.  About 2,000 people are believed to have been trapped in insurgent-held areas.  Duterte believed that the militant attack was part of a wider plot by ISIS to establish a base in Mindanao.  He declared martial law hoping to quell the threat, which begs the question:  Does Duterte have sufficient military personnel and weaponry to stop what seems to be cancerous spread of hatred and violence?  Or does it take more than a military remedy to remove the cancer? 

 

Military solution

By virtue of Duterte’s declaration of martial law, it is presumed that he believes the Marawi problem can be solved militarily.  He even suggested that he just might declare martial law nationwide to deal with the threat of “Islamist” militancy.  But some social scientists would disagree with Duterte’s approach in solving the Marawi problem; that is, to apply military solution to a social problem.  And as most of us know, Mindanao is the hotbed of social unrest ever since the Spaniards arrived in this country.

 

For one thing, Mindanao – or more specifically, the Muslim region of Mindanao – is the poorest region in the country.   The bigger the Muslim population is, the poorer the region.  Why so?  This has baffled social scientists ever since the country gained her independence.   So should it be fair to presume that the Muslims of Mindanao aren’t self-sufficient enough to maintain a higher economic production? 

 

That’s farthest from the truth.  On the contrary, Mindanao is the richest region in terms of natural resources and agricultural productivity.  So, what’s the problem?  How can Mindanao’s calculus change to make it as rich as Luzon or Western Visayas?  Let’s use a simple example of how productivity works: A small city’s production output is P500 million, which she turns over to the central government in Manila, who in turn allots P50 million back to the small city and puts the remaining P450 million in the national treasury.  As you can see, for every 10 pesos generated by the small city, the central government allots only 10% back to the small city.  Meanwhile, the central government spends the money earned by the small city on projects or programs that don’t benefit the small city.  What results is a disproportionately funded small city who has no other source of income.  Interestingly, the regions closest to the central government are where most economic projects and programs are being spent.  Out of the 10 poorest provinces in the country, seven are predominantly Muslim: Lanao del Sur (poorest), Sulu, Sarangani, Maguindanao, Bukidnon, Sultan Kudarat, and Zamboanga del Norte.  Marawi City is located in the province of Lanao del Sur.  Which makes one wonder: Is poverty the catalyst to social unrest?  You betcha! 

 

Dutertenomics
So what is Digong doing to solve the poverty in Muslim Mindanao?   We all know that military solution doesn’t relieve the plight of the poor.  On the contrary, it puts the poor in a worse situation. 

 

Meanwhile, what are Duterte’s economic projects that would uplift the poor in Mindanao?  Last April, Duterte’s economic team announced several big-ticket projects aimed to reduce poverty and fill the country’s infrastructure gap.  They call it “Dutertenomics,” whose 10-point socioeconomic agenda primarily aims to reduce poverty from 21.6 percent in 2015 to 13 to 15 percent by 2022.

 

In addition to the poverty reduction, a major plank of Dutertenomics will be a big infrastructure push, which they said would usher a “golden age of infrastructure” in the Philippines that includes a railway system for Mindanao.  But what does Dutertenomics do for the Muslims of Lanao del Sur and the six others that are high on the poverty list?  Is Dutertenomics going to change how provincial revenues are distributed?

 

But Dutertenomics has hit a snag before it could even take off.  That “snag” is the Battle of Marawi and it seems that it is getting bigger and bigger and getting out of control.  With foreign fighters from the Middle East joining the ranks of the Maute and Abu Sayyaf militants, the rebellion is escalating to a point where America might find herself directly fighting the militants in support of Philippine troops – not just technical support but “boots on the ground” as well. 

 

But military operation alone would only exacerbate the poverty situation of Muslim Mindanao.  What Digong should do is find ways constitutionally or by congressional fiat to alleviate the poverty situation.  The bottom line is: the central government should – nay, must! – find ways to stimulate the economy in Muslim Mindanao to sustain a healthy development of the region.  

 

At the end of the day, the timely arrival of Duterte’s “new” friends – the Americans—to help quell the Maute rebellion is a quantum improvement in U.S.-Philippine bilateral relations.  It is also a great opportunity for him to pursue structural and economic reforms and to defeat poverty -- which is the real enemy – and achieve social justice for the poor.  Failure to do so would only perpetuate the simmering social discontent in the region that could explode into another – if not larger – uprising.  Duterte has his work cut out for him.  (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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When President Donald Trump met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at his luxurious resort Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida last April 6, he was hoping that Xi would accept his invitation to stay at the posh resort.  Well, Xi politely declined and instead stayed at a nearby hotel.  But other than that, their summit was deemed a “success.”  Trump got something of geopolitical value that he thought would solve his North Korea dilemma.  And Xi got something of great economic value that he coveted so much.  But how do you measure who got more?  It’s like comparing apples and oranges, right?   

 

After the recent Trump-Xi summit at Mar-a-Lago in Florida, Trump’s hard-line stance against China melted like a marshmallow over a fire.  After two days of negotiations, Trump declared that China was not a “currency manipulator” and decided to maintain the status quo on trade issues.  That’s a 180-degree turnaround from his position during the presidential campaign.  

 

When Xi went back home, he ordered shipments of coal from North Korea to be turned back.  Trump was ebullient when he got the news.  He said that China took a “big step” in easing tensions between the two countries.  He described his relationship with Xi as one with “good chemistry” and praised Xi for banning North Korean coal.  

 

But what has that to do with the North Korea “nuclear” problem?  North Korea continues her nuclear program including developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could reach the U.S.  Since the Trump-Xi summit, North Korea had attempted to launch ballistic missiles but failed when the missiles exploded in flight.  The following day that South Korea elected Moon Jae-In as president, North Korea launched another missile test.  It was successful.   This led Moon to comment that war with North Korea was a “high possibility.”   

 

“Nuclear card”

Meanwhile, the situation in the South China Sea (SCS) has drastically changed: China put militarization of the region in high gear.  In an attempt to please – or appease – China, Trump isn’t doing anything.  He even turned down three requests from the Pacific Fleet to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) with 12 miles of China’s militarized islands in the Spratlys.  And in an act of arrogance, China’s ambassador to the U.S. demanded that Trump remove the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris Jr., who has been a strong proponent of FONOP.  But what reportedly irked China was when Harris called China “aggressive,” saying the country does not “seem to respect the international agreements they’ve signed.”  He was referring to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling that rejected China’s “nine-dash line” claim, which covered 80% of the SCS.

 

Evidently, Xi has put Trump on ice by playing the North Korea “nuclear card.”  In other words, North Korea can now pursue her nuclear program, knowing that Trump wouldn’t do anything to stop her for as long as Xi pursues the “denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.  But for North Korea watchers, denuclearization is not going to happen because China wouldn’t allow it to happen.  If China wanted it to happen, she could have done it long time ago. 

 

Another thing that’s not going to happen is Korean reunification.  If reunification were going to happen, it would be under a democratic government and China wouldn’t allow that to happen.   

 

Indeed, a divided Korea -- with North Korea possessing nuclear weapons -- would serve as a security buffer between China and the U.S. forces stationed just south of the demilitarized zone (DMZ).  But if the North Korean communist government collapses and the Korean Peninsula is reunified under the South Korea government, China will lose a strategic advantage over the western part of the Sea of Japan; thus, giving South Korea and Japan full control of the Sea of Japan.  This would allow South Korea and Japan to block the Korea Strait – which connects the Sea of Japan and the East China Sea (ECS) – if hostility with China erupts.

 

It’s important to note that ECS is a hotly disputed region between China and Japan.  The dispute is about ownership of the Senkaku Islands, a group of eight uninhabited isles and islets administered by Japan but contested by China.  The sea’s strategic value is important to China because it connects to the SCS through the Taiwan Strait.  To the east of the ECS is the Ryukyu archipelago, which is Japanese territory and to the west is China.

 

Arbitral tribunal

This brings us back to the SCS, which China claims by virtue of the “nine-dash line,” an arbitrary line that demarcates 80% of the South China Sea.  But last July, the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands, issued a ruling in the Republic of the Philippines vs. People’s Republic of China that invalidates the “nine-dash line,” thus rendering China’s claim null and void.  Beijing immediately rejected the PCA’s ruling. 

 

Meanwhile, the newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, who was sworn into office just 12 days prior to the PCA tribunal award, had a different idea.  Instead of pursuing the PCA’s award, he “temporarily” set it aside.  During an event at the Libingan ng mga Bayani (Heroes’ Cemetery), Duterte told Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua that he does not want to go to war with China.  Duterte then proposed that both the Philippines and China should just have a “soft landing everywhere.”  After Duterte’s decision to set the tribunal award temporarily, China showered the Philippines with financial loans.  

 

Rude awakening

Last May 15, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the “One Belt, One Road” summit in Beijing.  Duterte told Xi, “We intend to drill oil there, if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth, because it is ours.” Xi responded, saying: Well, if you force this, we’ll be forced to tell you the truth. We will go to war. We will fight you.” 

 

It must have been a rude awakening for Duterte who had called Xi a “great president.”  “China loves the Philippines and the Filipino people,” Duterte once said of his new friend and idol.  Who would go to war with a friend?  Clearly, things have changed, which begs the question:  Why the direct and undiplomatic verbal assault on Duterte?

 

Xi knows that Duterte is weak – very weak – who by his own admission said “We cannot stop China from doing its thing.  What do you want me to do? Declare war against China? I can, but we’ll lose all our military and policemen tomorrow!”  If Xi uses Sun Tzu’s “Art of War” tactics, he knows that not only Duterte is weak; U.S. President Donald Trump is weak, too.  And this raises the question: Would Trump honor the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) if Duterte invoked it? If no, then the Philippines would be helplessly at the mercy of China.   And for as long as Xi keeps promising Trump that he’s working to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, Trump would remain neutral in the territorial disputes in the SCS.   

 

When Xi warned Duterte, “We will go to war,” he knew exactly what Duterte would do: Withdraw.  And if Duterte has the cojones to proceed drilling for oil, what would Xi do?  Would he ask Trump to rein in Duterte just like when Trump asked Xi to rein in North Korea’s “supreme leader,” Kim Jong-un? 

 

Indeed, any way it’s played out, Xi wins.  He keeps North Korea nuclear-armed and the South China Sea in his possession.  Which makes one wonder: Did Xi take Trump for a ride when they met at Mar-a-Lago?

 

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Since Rodrigo Duterte assumed the presidency of the Philippines, he had demonstrated a clear bias for China and – by his own words – hatred of the United States.   It did not then come as a surprise that he did not pursue the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) ruling that China has no “historical rights” based on the “nine-dash line” map.  China rejected the ruling.  Duterte set aside the PCA’s award, saying that he has no plans to raise the arbitral ruling right now.
 
Satisfied with President Duterte’s decision to not pursue the arbitral ruling, China showered the country with infrastructure, economic, and military aid in billions of dollars.  Duterte was so happy that he declared that China loves the Philippines and the Filipino people. China’s “charm offensive,” which includes signing a six- year development plan, paid off and Duterte was happy as a clam.  “China is our friend,” he declared.
 
But in spite of China’s expression of “love,” there are two disturbing things that are happening in the country.  The first is that China continues to provide weapons to the communist New People’s Army (NPA), which is becoming stronger – and bolder -- in fighting the government.  The second is that China remains the biggest – if not the only – source of illegal drugs that are flooding the country.  The Philippine National Police (PNP) admitted that it’s helpless in stopping the flow of the illegal drug “shabu” into the country.   
 
Stern warning
 
Last March, a series of events occurred that has taken the attention of the world.  First, it was reported in the news that Xiao Jie, mayor of China’s Sansha City, was quoted as saying that preparations were underway to build an environmental monitoring station on Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal.  Duterte reacted by saying that the Philippines cannot stop China from building on the shoal for now.  “We can’t stop China from doing this thing,” he said.   
 
But Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio disagreed.  He sternly warned that such structures might bolster China’s claims in the disputed waters.  He said that the installation of "radar stations" in the shoal will complete Chinese coverage of the West Philippine Sea and be used to enforce its "nine-dash line."  He reminded Duterte that the “President is the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, which is tasked by the Constitution to defend the country's territory.”   
 
Carpio recommended that Duterte can fulfill his constitutional duty by doing any or all of five things, one of which is: “Ask the United States to declare that Scarborough Shoal is part of Philippine territory for purposes of the Philippines-US Mutual Defense Treaty since the shoal has been part of Philippine territory even during the American colonial period.”  With what is happening in North Korea right now, the U.S. might see this as an opportunity to bolster her alliances with five treaty allies (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Australia) that form the First Island Chain.
 
A few days later, Duterte said that China gave her word not to undertake construction on Scarborough Shoal.  He was quoted in the news as saying, “I got word from the Chinese government, that in deference to our friendship, they want to preserve the relations, do not turn it sour, they are not building in Panatag. I told them thank you… they said nothing [will be built] on Panatag, [they] will never do it there."But “never” is something that China often says but rarely does.  We’ve heard her say that too often in her “salami-slicing” tactics in the Spratly archipelago since she took possession of the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in 1995.  She built a small structure on stilts over it and told the Philippines that it was merely a “fishermen’s shelter.”  Today, a large fortification is built on it.  
 
Secret undersea exploration
 
But it didn’t take too long before China made her next step forward.  In my column, “Appeasing the Chinese Dragon” (April 7, 2017), I wrote: “In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise. The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits. 
 
“During a press conference last March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right but she cannot take the region as her own territory.
 
“The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sought clarification on what Geng said.  In response, the Chinese informed DFA that they recognize the Philippines’ sovereign rights and they are not disputing Benham Rise.” 
 
Obviously, it’s another instance of China’s “two steps forward, one step backward” strategy she’s been using to expand her control over the islands in the South China Sea (SCS).  China’s next move would most likely be to propose a joint Philippines-China exploration of Benham Rise.  This reminds us of the tactics she used when the Philippines, China, and Vietnam held the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) in the Spratlys in 2005-2008.  It gave China an “open window” to claim the Recto Bank.  Indeed, as soon as then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and her Chinese and Vietnamese counterparts signed the JSMU, China started claiming Recto Bank. 
 
Flash of enlightenment
 
Last April 6, Duterte must have seen a flash of enlightenment.  Suddenly, he turned 180 degrees from his position that the Philippines is safe from Chinese imperialist expansion for as long as he kowtows to China’s powers-that-be and wouldn’t challenge China’s encroachment of Philippine territory.  He ordered the Armed Forces to “occupy” the nine islands in the Kalayaan Group of Islands in the Spratlys and personally plant a Philippine flag there to indicate the country’s sovereignty over these islands. He also said he wants to "officially claim" Benham Rise and change its name to "Philippine Ridge.”   
 
It is expected that Duterte’s drastic policy shift would set off a series of tectonic geopolitical ramblings, particularly from China.  It would also send a strong signal to Uncle Sam that Duterte is now willing to play ball with U.S. President Donald Trump and his generals, who seem to be ready to retake America’s role as the world’s preeminent superpower.  Indeed, it would serve America’s national interests in the Pacific and also strengthen the weakest link – the Philippines -- in the First Island Chain; thus, preventing China from breaking out into the Philippine Sea where Benham Rise is located.
 
What the future bodes
 
But the question is: How would China react to Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy that is now evolving into a foreign policy independent of Chinese influence?  Further, if China attacks the troops deployed to the nine Kalayaan islands, how would Duterte defend them? Would the U.S. defend them?  If so, would it start a war between the U.S. and China?  And as a consequence, would it ignite World War III? 
 
There are no answers to these questions yet.  However, it elicited a number of conspiracy theories.  One of them says that China ordered Duterte to occupy the islands to give the Chinese a pretense to attack the country.  Another theory says that Duterte wants to form a China-backed revolutionary government and eventually convert the country into a Cuban-style communist society.  Another one says that the Philippines would be balkanized into several countries or territories with Luzon and Palawan becoming provinces of China, Mindanao becoming a Muslim republic aligned with Malaysia, and the creation of a Republic of the Visayas under the protectorate of the U.S.  It might sound outlandish but when the country cannot get her act together, breaking it up might just be the convenient solution to a complex – and apparently unsolvable problem -- just like what happened to Yugoslavia in the 1990s. 
 
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According to Chinese mythology, dragons are legendary creatures that symbolize power and strength. Today, the Chinese Dragon is China’s national symbol just like the eagle is to the U.S. and the bear to Russia.  

 

In 1949 Mao Zedong’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) drove the Kuomintang government out of Mainland China in a bloody civil war and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC).  No sooner had Mao gained power than China started expanding its domain beyond its borders.  In 1959, China occupied Tibet and incorporated it into the PRC and declared it as one of its national core interests. 

 

In 1972, then U.S. President Richard Nixon went to China and held talks with Mao.  Relations between the two countries warmed up and in 1979 the U.S., under the presidency of Jimmy Carter, established formal diplomatic relations with the PRC and severed ties with Taiwan.  However, the U.S. Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which states that the U.S. must help Taiwan defend itself.  To this day, the U.S. remains Taiwan’s main supplier of arms.

 

China’s emergence as an economic power – second only to the U.S. today – may be attributed to its entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO).  The U.S. saw China as one of the fastest growing markets of American goods and services; thus, endorsed China’s admission into the WTO in 2001.  Hence began China’s economic miracle.  

Chinese Dream

 

In my column, “Chinese Dream: Beyond the First Island Chain” (December 1, 2013), I wrote: “Admiral Liu Huaqing, the mastermind of China’s modern naval strategy, was quoted as saying in 1982 that it would be necessary for China to control the First and Second Island Chains by 2010 and 2020, respectively. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040. If China is able to dominate the Second Island Chain seven years from now, the East China Sea will become the backyard of the PLA Navy,”he said. 

 

 

In the 35 years since then, the Chinese Dragon has set its eyes on the East and South China Seas.  In 1974, after China defeated Vietnam in a naval battle in the Paracel Islands, China established de facto control over the Paracel Islands. 

 

In 1991, the Philippine Senate rejected the renewal of the U.S. bases.  The American forces left the following year.  Their departure created a power vacuum in the South China Sea.

 

In 1995, China took possession of the Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in the Spratly archipelago, which the Philippines claimed as part of its exclusive Economic zone (EEZ).  Consequently, China grabbed Subi Reef, which is just a few miles from the Philippine-controlled Pag-Asa Island. With a navy with no warships and an air force with no warplanes, the Philippines was left at the mercy of the Chinese Dragon.

 

In 2012, after several months of standoff between the Chinese and Philippine coast guards, China took de facto possession of the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal, which is within the Philippines’ EEZ. 

 

The following year, China started building artificial islands in the Spratly islands.  Today, seven of these man-made islands were fitted with runways, harbors, and buildings.  Recent satellite images show that radars and surface-to-air missiles have been installed in most of them.

 

Uncle Sam vs. Chinese Dragon

 

Last year, China started building its first overseas military base in Djibouti, which is strategically located at the mouth of Gulf of Aden into the Red Sea.  Purportedly built as a logistical base for fighting piracy in the region, the Chinese naval base is just a few miles to Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti, which is one of the U.S.’s largest and most important foreign bases.  With the two rival bases closely situated to one another, one wonders if the Chinese base’s primary purpose were to monitor activities at Camp Lemonnier.  One might say, “The Chinese Dragon has come too close for comfort.”  Indeed.

 

One wonders, how did all these happen?  Why didn’t the U.S. stop China from building these artificial islands? Could it be because Uncle Sam was still licking its wounds after the Philippines kicked the U.S, bases out?  Did then President Barack Obama purposely appease the Chinese Dragon to punish the Philippines for evicting the U.S. bases?  But instead Obama kept repeating that the U.S. remains neutral in the territorial disputes between the Philippines and China. 

 

But on a similar situation in the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers and China claims, the U.S. went on record that any attack on the Senkakus would be defended by Japanese and U.S. forces under their Security Treaty. 

 

The difference between the Philippines and Japanese defense treaties with the U.S. is that the U.S. has 50,000 military personnel stationed in Japan in addition to a forward naval operating base and several air bases scattered around Japan.  In the case of the Philippines, there are none except for a small contingent of about 100 special operations personnel who are helping the Philippines in combating terrorists in Mindanao. 

 

EDCA

 

In 2013, after losing the Scarborough Shoal, then President Benigno Aquino III invited the U.S. to come back to the Philippines.  The U.S. agreed and in April 2014, the two countries signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), which would allow American forces to be deployed to several Philippine military bases around the country. 

 

With the ascension of left-leaning Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016, the security situation in the Philippines changed with Duterte establishing close economic, political, defense relationships with China.  Duterte had openly admitted that he is appeasing China because the Philippines doesn’t have any chance of winning a war against the Chinese Dragon.  It is the same situation with Japan; however, the difference is that Uncle Sam has Japan’s back while Duterte has given Uncle Sam the middle finger and called Obama, “Son of a whore!” 

 

Benham Rise

 

In the short time that Duterte has been playing  ‘footsie” with the Chinese, openly admitting that he’ll never go to war against them, the Chinese Dragon is spreading its foothold into Philippine territories.  In February 2016, the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) reported that several Chinese ships were seen in the Benham Rise. The following July, China Daily published a report about China’s “secret undersea exploration” in the Benham Rise area. The report said that China discovered massive mineral deposits. 

 

During a press conference last March 10, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that the Philippines can explore and develop the natural resources in Benham Rise as a sovereign right but she cannot take the region as her own territory.  

 

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) sought clarification on what Geng said.  In response, the Chinese informed DFA that they recognize the Philippines’ sovereign rights and they are not disputing Benham Rise.” 

 

Although China backed off, it’s a red flag about China’s ultimate goal.  All we have to do is go back to Admiral Liu’s “naval strategy” that he laid out in 1982. “The PLA Navy must be ready to challenge US domination over the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean in 2040,” he said.  Well, he’s not too far behind in his timetable.  With virtual control over the South China Sea, the Chinese Dragon is stealthily waving its way out of the First Island Chain into the Western Pacific and beyond. 

 

Obama might have realized at the end of his presidency that appeasement or using “soft power” approach in dealing with the Chinese Dragon was a tactical mistake.  Duterte is beginning to realize it too that appeasement is not going to work.  He should take cue from U.S. President Donald Trump whose mantra, ”Peace through strength,” keeps the Chinese Dragon at bay.  However, one should – nay, must! – be vigilant.  As Sun Tzu wrote in his “The Art of War” 2,500 years ago, “In war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak.”  Appeasement is a sign of weakness and should be avoided at all cost.  Yes, there is no substitute for strength. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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When then Justice Secretary Leila de Lima ran for the Senate in 2016, little did she know that she was on a road taken by a growing number of politicians, one that leads to incarceration.  These include former presidents Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, former Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, and Senators Jinggoy Estrada and Bong Revilla.  And if the “tradition” of imprisoning previous presidents continues, then former president Benigno Aquino Jr. would be next in line.  President Rodrigo Duterte is looking for “evidence” to file charges against Aquino.  And who knows, Duterte’s successor – unless it’s Bongbong Marcos – might find ways to detain Duterte when he finishes his term of office?  But that’s still a few years into the future.  His time will come. 

 

Today, it’s De Lima’s time to be in the limelight.  But for someone who enjoyed being in the limelight throughout her career, De Lima might find it a little uneasy this time with life behind bars.  The prospect of a long detention like Erap and Gloria seems likely since President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte has taken personal interest in building the charges against De Lima.  But that doesn’t seem like she’d be muzzled into silence.  On the contrary, her detention energizes her into focusing on one goal: to bring down Duterte.   

 

Surmise it to say, bringing Duterte down would most likely result in release from detention.  However, given the enormity of Duterte’s power over the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which are both headed by Duterte loyalists, there is nobody in the country with the capability to depose Duterte.  It takes muscle to bring Digong down and Digong has all the muscle right now. 

 

Known for her feistiness, Leila is like a pit bull: once her jaws are locked on your neck, you might as well say your prayers and hope that you’d be able to say “Amen” before your life expires.  But a pit bull as she is, she couldn’t get near Duterte close enough to do him harm. 

 

So, does it mean that Leila is in a Catch-22 situation?  It seems like it.  Does it also mean that she has to wait until Duterte is out of office in 2022, at which time the next president might release or pardon her?   That’s a long wait.

 

Perhaps, Leila should have remained in the private law practice, a top-notch lawyer who scored the 8th highest mark in the country's annual bar exams in 1985.   She built a successful law practice with a specialty in helping prominent politicians in election court cases.

 

Fighting lawlessness

 

In 2008, De Lima took a detour from her lucrative private law practice and took a government job as chairwoman of the Commission on Human Rights (CHR), a government independent agency.   It must have been an eye-opener for her because for the next two years, Leila worked with a handful of lowly paid lawyers fighting lawlessness.  They investigated extrajudicial killings (EJKs), abductions, and human rights violations.  And this was where she crossed paths with Duterte, then the mayor of Davao City, who was rumored to have authorized killing hundreds of drug addicts. 

 

In my article, “Lawlessness in Davao City” (February 20, 2012), I wrote: “Rodrigo Duterte, who was mayor from 2001 until he was termed out in 2010, gained notoriety when a vigilante group known as the ‘Davao Death Squad’ was believed to have been responsible for the murder of more than 1,000 citizens including children and young teens.  Although he was never proven to be associated with the death squad – which was often referred to as ‘Duterte Death Squad’ — he had made public statements that seem to encourage or condone those killings.

 

“In February 2009, according to the Human Rights Watch, Duterte told reporters: If you are doing an illegal activity in my city, if you are a criminal or part of a syndicate that preys on the innocent people of the city, for as long as I am the mayor, you are a legitimate target of assassination.’
 

“The report, ‘You Can Die Any Time: Death Squad Killings in Mindanao,’ details the ‘involvement of police and local government officials in targeted killings of alleged drug dealers and petty criminals, street children, and others, and describes the lack of any effort by the authorities to investigate the killings and bring those responsible to justice.’
 

“The report further said, ‘The longtime mayor of Davao City, Rodrigo Duterte, has made numerous statements attempting to justify the killing of suspected criminals, believing that such killings have a deterrent effect on crime and have made the city a safer place. But according to statistics provided by the Philippines National Police, the number of annual crime incidents has increased some 219 percent in the last decade, while the city’s population rose only by 29 percent. An increasing number of death squad killings appear to have made crime rates worse in Davao.’

 

“The administration of then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ignored the ‘targeted killings’ in Davao City.  Not only did she ignore those extrajudicial killings, she appointed Duterte in 2003 as her consultant on ‘peace and order,’ which seemingly indicated that she approved Duterte’s modus operandi of operating outside the law in fighting criminal elements.”

 

In the crosshairs

 

Duterte became Leila’s main target for the spate of EJKs in Davao City.  She opened a probe into the Davao Death Squad.  In 2010, however, she left the CHR with the probe unfinished to take the job as Secretary of Justice under the Aquino administration.

 

It was then that she raided the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) to dismantle the perks and amenities accorded to inmates convicted of illegal drug trafficking.  It was an act that put her in the crosshairs of the drug lords.

 

In 2016, she ran and won a seat on the Senate.  That’s when she got herself in trouble.  She tried to revive the old charges of EJKs against Duterte during his 20-year reign in Davao City.  Add the more than 7,000 EJKs since Duterte took over last June and Leila had a truckload of cases that she could pore over to look for evidence that would nail Digong down as a “serial murderer.”

 

Duterte could respond the only way he does and that is to launch a deadly counter-attack against Leila.  “I will have to destroy her in public,” said Duterte in August last year.  He then proceeded to build a case alleging she was one of the nation's biggest drug traffickers.  He lined-up several convicted drug lords who testified against Leila before a Senate investigation panel.  Gee, that’s like using Al Capone’s testimony against Elliot Ness.  And it worked!

 

The government finally filed drug charges against De Lima based on the testimony of several convicted drug lords at the NBP. 

 

A Muntinlupa trial court judge ordered the arrest of Senator Leila de Lima on Thursday, February 23, over drug charges.  The question is: Can they convict a Philippine Senator of drug trafficking based on the testimony of drug traffickers? 

 

At the end of the day, just like previous political prisoners before her, she, too, would be freed after serving time for opposing Duterte. 

 

Who’s next? (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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One of the most quoted maxims in politics is: “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.”  But regardless of whether you’re dealing with a friend or an enemy, the one that could earn dividends is the mantra: “Don’t burn your bridges because you’ll never know when you would need them.”  American presidents since the beginning of the 19th century were good at following this mantra.  Not only did they not burn bridges, they built bridges for their former enemies.  Yes, indeed.  Look at post-World War II Germany and Japan. 

 

At the end of World War II, the U.S. initiated the Marshall Plan – officially the European Recovery Program – to aid Western Europe from the ravages of war. More than $12 billion (approximately $120 billion in current dollar value) were given in the 1950s and 1960s.  The reunification of West Germany and the former communist state of East Germany in 1990 created Europe’s biggest economic power. Today, the U.S. continues to maintain a strong military force to protect Germany and 25 other European countries – collectively the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -- from the threat of Russian aggression.

 

In the case of Japan, the American occupation of Japan provided a smooth transition to economic recovery.  With the presence of American bases and troops, Japan allocated only one percent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for her self-defense force; thus, giving her more to spend on economic recovery.  By the 1960s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy after the U.S.

 

Today, Germany and Japan join the ranks of America’s most dependable allies.  Germany, together with her World War II adversaries -- United Kingdom and France -- form the bulwark of NATO while Japan partners with the U.S. and South Korea in keeping China and North Korea at bay. 

 

Rise of China

 

With the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. – displacing Japan who moved down to third place -- there is a great deal of anxiety among her Asian neighbors who are fearful of China’s imperialistic design in the South and East China Seas.  Thus far, Vietnam and the Philippines have lost territories to China.  In 1974, China grabbed the Paracel Islands after engaging Vietnam in a fierce naval battle.  In 1994, China occupied the Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and built permanent fortifications on it. 

 

In 2012, China took possession of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal after four months of standoff between Chinese and Philippine coast guards.  To break the impasse, the U.S. mediated for both parties to withdraw their vessels from the shoal.  Both countries agreed. Well, the Philippines withdrew her ships but China didn’t.  Since then, China cordoned the only opening to the shoal’s lagoon; thus, preventing Philippine ships and fishing vessels from entering what was once Philippine territory.    

 

In 2013, China started building artificial islands on seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea (SCS).  When the U.S. confronted China about those artificial islands, China said she had no intention of militarizing them.  However, satellite photos show runways, harbors, and structures that appear to be missile emplacements.  When asked again, China said that she has the right to build and install defense equipment on her sovereign territory.   

 

Can China be trusted?

 

The representations that China made when she was building the artificial islands were different from what she’s saying now; she’s fortifying these islands to defend them from external forces. It manifests China’s propensity to lie.  In other words, 
China can’t be trusted.

 

In a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the Philippines last September, 76% of the respondents had “much trust” in the U.S. compared to 22% about China.  What is interesting is that the survey was conducted at a time when Digong was vociferously expressing his anti-American tirades. 

 

Duterte continued his verbal assaults on the U.S., particularly against then-President Barack Obama whom he called “son of a whore” and told him to “go to hell.”  But Duterte seemed to be attracted to then President-elect Donald Trump who talked to him on the phone telling him that he was doing the “right thing” in his war on drugs. 

 

As an expression of goodwill towards Trump, Duterte sent his Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon to attend Trump’s inaugural last January 20.  Although there were no news reports of the two attending the inaugural ball and having a seat at the VIP section at the inauguration, they were at the pre-inaugural reception at the Philippine Embassy, which was mostly attended by Filipino-Americans.

 

Change in Duterte

 

Something must have happened since then because Duterte seemed to have a change in his attitude towards Uncle Sam. 

 

Recently, it was reported in the news that Duterte had given Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana the go-ahead for the U.S. military to build barracks and fuel depots in designated Philippine bases where American forces are allowed to temporarily station under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).  This is a far cry from last month when Duterte threatened to terminate EDCA. He said then that he didn’t want his country to get entangled if a Sino-American war erupted.  Lorenzana identified three bases where the U.S. is supposedly bringing weapons, including Palawan, which is just within 100-200 miles from the militarized artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago in the SCS.

 

Realignment

 

Obviously, Duterte is realigning with the U.S., just a few months after he announced during his state visit to China that he will “separate” from the U.S.  His 180-degree about-face surprised the Duterte watchers.

 

Last February 5, Duterte announced that he had terminated the peace talks with leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF).  He also lifted the “ceasefire” with the New People’s Army (NPA).  In a media conference, Duterte said that the CPP-NDF-NPA triumvirate was making unreasonable demands including freeing hundreds of prisoners whom NPA claims to be “political prisoners.”  Duterte had initially released 18 prisoners but their number was increased to 23 upon the insistence. After releasing them, the rebels demanded the release of another 400 prisoners.  It was then that Duterte ordered the arrest of jailed leftist leaders who were allowed to join the peace talks. 

 

Duterte then branded the CPP-NDF-NPA as a terrorist group, which didn’t dwell too well with Chinese President Xi Jinping.  It’s a big blow to Xi whom the Chinese people affectionately call Uncle Xi or Xi Dada.  Xi had expected Duterte to turn the Philippines into a vassal of China and terminate EDCA including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).  And with a navy without warships and an air force without warplanes, the Philippines would helplessly be at the mercy of a militant China. What a shame!

 

At the end of the day, the defensive umbrella that Uncle Sam provides over the Philippines would ensure that the country remains sovereign and independent.  Unlike Xi Dada, Uncle Sam has no imperialistic design in the Philippines.  However, America has vast national security interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and thus has to remain a power in the region to keep the strategic shipping lanes in the SCS and other bodies of international water open to all nations. 

 

Ultimately, it all comes down to a question of trust.  Whom can Duterte trust: Uncle Sam or Xi Dada?  (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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President Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte won the presidency hands down by 39% plurality and 16.6 million votes.  His closest rival, Mar Roxas, got 23.4%, which is only 9.9 million votes.  Not only did Duterte win the presidency, he also took control of the House of Representatives when a vast majority of congressmen from other parties – there were only three from Digong’s party – abandoned their parties and joined Digong’s party, the Partido Demokratiko Pilipino-Lakas ng Bayan (Philippine Democratic Party-Power of the People) or PDP–Laban for short. 

 

Known in the local parlance as “balimbings” (political turncoats), Duterte’s followers in the House provide him with an ironclad defense from any attempt to impeach him.   In the Senate, while there are only three (out of the 24 senators) who are affiliated with PDP-Laban, Digong’s personal influence over the senators is unquestionable.  Except for two or three senators, most of the senators wouldn’t dare oppose Digong.  They respect and fear him.   

 

In essence, one can say that Digong is a “strongman” like Russian President Vladimir Putin; but he is not a “dictator” like the late President Ferdinand E. Marcos who had absolute power over everything.  And this begs the question: Why would Digong want to declare martial law, when his grip to power is strong?  Would it be fair to presume that he might have been thinking of the day when his grip weakens and loses control of Congress?  And the specter of that happening could give him sleepless nights, insecurity, and paranoia.  Could this be the reason why he is not comfortable sleeping in Malacañang Palace protected by the elite Presidential Security Group?

 

Indeed, he’d rather commute by plane everyday working between Malacañang and his modest home in Davao City, which consumes several hours thus shortening his productive time in running the country.  But his long commute time doesn’t seem to bother him.  He probably feels safer sleeping in his private home secured by his personal Praetorian Guard, and surrounded by his “loyal” constituents… and the safety of his mosquito net, which protects him from dengue-carrying mosquitoes while he sleeps.

 

Insecurity

 

It’s probably this feeling of insecurity -- compounded by paranoidal mood swings --that has driven him to consider declaring martial law.  But there are two impediments: the 1987 Constitution and the Supreme Court.  Declaring martial law is not as easy as in 1972 when Marcos with the support of the powerful “Rolex 12,” a group of the most influential military generals and defense officials including a rich business tycoon, imposed martial law and ruled by decree.

 

Martial law

 

It all began last August when Digong included several judges – he called them “narco-judges” – on a “narco list” of alleged drug lords and users. He threatened to have them arrested to which Supreme Court Chief Justice Ma. Lourdes Sereno reacted by issuing a statement, saying that “law enforcers must first secure warrants of arrest from judges before judges allow themselves to be ‘physically accountable to any police officer’ as she warned of a constitutional crisis.”  This did not bode well with Digong who responded angrily, “I’m giving you a warning. Don’t create a crisis because I will order everybody in the executive department not to honor you,” he said referring to Sereno.  He added, “Please, don’t order me. I’m not a fool. If this continues, (that) you’re tying to stop me, I might lose my cool. Or would you rather I declare martial law?”  

 

But there is one obstacle: the Constitution.  Section 18, Article VII says that the President, as commander-in-chief, may “in case of invasion or rebellion, when the public safety requires it” suspend the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus or place the country under martial law.”  However, the martial law period or suspension of the writ of habeas corpus should not exceed 60 days. The writ safeguards individual freedom against arbitrary state action.  It also specifies “that a state of martial law cannot override the function of both the judiciary and legislative branches of the government.”  It also doesn’t “authorize the conferment of jurisdiction on military courts and agencies over civilians where civil courts are able to function, nor automatically suspend the privilege of the writ.”

 

But his allies quickly defended him.  Presidential Chief Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo said, “The imminent danger brought about by the proliferation of illegal drugs is enough basis for Duterte to place the Philippines under martial law.”  The question is: Can Digong declare martial law like Marcos, abolish the Constitution, and rule by decree?  Can he abolish the civilian government all the way down to the local executive levels?  And who would help him administer martial law?  Would it be the 160,000-strong Philippine National Police (PNP) under the leadership of the controversial General Ronald “Bato” de la Rosa?  With the PNP’s record of killing suspected drug pushers and allegations of “kidnapping for ransom” operations using the PNP’s Oplan Tokhang anti-drug campaign, the PNP is now suspected of extrajudicial killings (EJK) or “salvaging.”  This is reminiscent of the dark martial law days of the Marcos era.

 

Supreme Court

 

And this brings to mind Digong’s ardent desire to have Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., the late dictator’s only son and namesake, succeed him as president.  Duterte is presumably indebted to the Marcoses who contributed large amounts to Duterte’s presidential campaign.  But the problem is that Bongbong lost the vice presidential election to Leni Robredo who took over the vice presidency at the same time as Digong. Bongbong protested Leni’s election, which was by a small margin, by submitting a 20,000-page document before Supreme Court (SC), which sits as the Presidential Electoral Tribunal (PET).  According to former SC Chief Justice Artemio Panganiban, it would take more than three years before the PET reaches a decision. 

 

Well, for some reason, Digong couldn’t wait that long to turn over the presidency by way of a “resignation due to poor health.”  He said that he could be stepping down sooner, in which case he’d like Bongbong to persistently pursue his electoral protest.  Which makes one wonder: How can Bongbong’s electoral protest be expedited?

 

My crystal ball shows that there is one Associate Justice who is actively “lobbying” the other justices to rule in favor of Bongbong.  Not three years, not one year, but very soon!  The word is that majority of the PET has already been convinced to rule favorably for Bongbong by abbreviating the process and calling for a vote immediately.  How did the “lobbying” work?  Is it by friendly persuasion or gentle pressure… or bribery?  But if it works one way or the other, then we’re looking at a decision very soon.  However, it also rumored that a group has been formed to resist martial law and stop Bongbong from taking over the presidency.     

 

Sanctions

 

Ultimately, a Bongbong presidency could attract a hostile consortium of foreign governments who would impose economic sanctions against Bong bong and his government, just like the way the U.S. and her allies sanctioned Russia after she invaded Crimea. But Russia is barely surviving the sanctions only because she has a sovereign reserve currency of $500 billion dollars; the Philippines doesn’t have that kind of wealth.

 

But if for some reason, the Supreme Court justices come to their senses and for once demonstrate their loyalty to the Constitution that they were sworn to defend and uphold, then Digong might just do what he had threatened to do.

 

Sad to say, all the gains that have brought the Philippines out of the economic doldrums during the Marcos era may be wasted by Digong’s irresponsible and disgraceful act of destroying the collective efforts of the Filipino people in the past three decades.  And this brings to fore the question: Is martial law just a matter of time?    

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The generals of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) must be texting each other, saying: “Did you hear what Digong was saying these days? LOL.”  Another general would probably respond, “He’s a weakling like Obama.  Hahaha… LOLOL.”  Another one would probably say, “Well, they both can go to hell so we can take their countries…  LMAO.”  And President Xi Jinping would probably say, “And he’s willing to give up the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal for a railroad in Mindanao.  Well, I think if I asked for Palawan, he’d give it too. Hehehe…”  And the generals would all respond, “Long live Xi Dada!  Let’s get Luzon, too!  ROFLMAO.”  
 
Well, as most of you probably know, LOL is the acronym for “Laughing Out Loud,” LOLOL is for “Lots of Laughing Out Loud,” LMAO is for “Laughing My Ass Off,” and ROFLAO is for “Rolling On Floor Laughing My Ass Off.”  These are all Internet slang used in texting messages.
 
Seriously, we can all make fun of this satirical conversation but it’s not ludicrous at all.  The question is: What could possibly make the Chinese generals roll on the floor laughing their asses off?   The answer is: Duterte surrendering the Philippines’ territories in the West Philippines Sea to China.  
 
Picture this: After former President Benigno Aquino III had won the arbitration case against China, the new president Rodrigo “Digong” Duterte was telling everybody that he didn’t want to antagonize China and so he ordered that there would be no more patrols beyond the 12-mile boundary.  That’s tantamount to surrendering the Philippines’ sovereignty over her Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).  He also decided that there would be no more joint military exercises with the U.S. during his presidency.  He also told the American Special Forces in Mindanao to leave.  He also threatened to distance his country from the U.S., saying he’s about to pass “the point of no return” with the U.S.  This is a total reversal of the Philippines’ victory in the arbitration case against China.  Indeed, this is a classic example of the mantra, “To snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.”
 
Red carpet
 
Chinese President Xi Jinping must really be tickled pink that he invited Digong to visit China this month.  Yep, he’d lay out the red carpet for him, treat him to a 20-course State Dinner, bedazzle him with a tour of the Great Wall, and show him the glitz of Shanghai at night. Xi might even show Digong the ghost cities with hundreds of empty high-rise apartment tenements, and tell him, “You see, we can build these for you in your own country to use in rehabilitating the three million drug addicts that you failed to slaughter,” which was in reference to what Digong had said not too long: “Hitler massacred three million Jews … there’s three million drug addicts… I’d be happy to slaughter them.” 
 
It would probably impress Digong so much that he’d offer to give China a 120-year lease on thousands of hectares of prime real estate land to build these rehabilitation centers.  Actually, a “mega” drug rehabilitation facility is now being built in a military camp north of Manila. Funded by Huang Rulun, a Chinese philanthropist and real estate developer, the facility will treat up to 10,000 drug addicts.  It is being built using 75 shipping containers of materials imported from China, which begs the question: Why can’t they build it with local materials and Filipino labor? 
 
The Duterte administration announced that four more “mega” treatment centers would be built.  Duterte said that the Chinese have expressed their readiness to help him fight illegal drugs.  However, he also criticized China for not doing enough to stop the flow of methamphetamines – or shabu – into the Philippines, which makes one wonder: If the smuggling of shabu did not happen, would there be a drug addiction problem in the Philippines?
 
Chinese drug lords
 
But the bigger problem is not the smuggling of shabu into the Philippines but the presence of Chinese drug lords who have established clandestine laboratories for the production of shabu all over the country, one of which was right inside the New Bilibid Prison (NBP) operated by the so-called “Bilibid 19.”  This group of convicted Chinese drug lords and their Filipino brokers are believed to be operating one of the largest shabu laboratories in the country, allegedly with the cooperation of NBP officials and staff.
 
Buoyed by China’s promises of economic and military assistance, Duterte is going to China with an entourage of more than 400 Filipino businessmen – and kibitzers -- hoping that they’d benefit from China’s “soft power” resources and investments.  
 
But the infusion of Chinese capital into the Philippine economy has a price… a pretty stiff price.  To what extent China would give billions – nay, trillions! – in economic aid depends on what concessions Duterte is willing to give to the Chinese.  Needless to say, the Chinese would expect more in return for what they would give financially.  
 
While welcoming Chinese investments in the Philippine economy is a wise move by Duterte, but doing it at the expense of American economic and military assistance is not only dangerous, it reduces the geopolitical leverage that the Philippines has to nothing.  Zilch… zero!
 
American protection
 
Right now, even though the U.S. forces have left, the Philippines is still enjoying the protection provided by the U.S. in three military and defense agreements, to wit: Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).   They provide the mechanism for the two countries to mobilize and unify their forces to repel or expel invaders. However, it would be a different story if U.S. forces were deployed to the Philippines, which would serve as “tripwire” against invaders. 
 
Take the case of Japan where there are 50,000 U.S. military personnel and hundreds of aircraft and naval units.  Likewise with South Korea where 28,000 American troops are stationed in several army and air bases.  And just recently, Australia and the U.S. signed an agreement for the deployment of 5,000 American military personnel to Darwin, whose geostrategic location is close to six choke points in and around the Indonesian archipelago, including the heavily used Strait of Malacca.
 
Surmise it to say, Xi would think twice before he’d invade Japan, South Korea or Australia, simply because of the huge presence of American military forces in those countries. But would Xi hesitate to invade the Philippines? Nah!  But wait a minute!  Didn’t China already invade Philippine territories?  Oops!
 
American withdrawal
 
Prior to 1992, when all American bases were kicked out of the Philippines – nobody dared to invade the Philippines.  However, two years after the American bases were closed, China occupied the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef and the Philippines couldn’t do anything about it simply because she didn’t have warships or warplanes to protect her territories.  In 2012, China grabbed the Scarborough Shoal and Macclesfield Bank.  Two years later, China started building artificial islands on seven reefs and shoals within the Philippines’ EEZ.  And the latest word is that China would soon reclaim the Scarborough Shoal whose lagoon is as big as the Philippines’ capital, Quezon City. 
 
Scarborough Shoal is strategically located in the South China Sea where China could control the South China Sea/West Philippine Sea.   It is also in close proximity to the   Strait of Luzon, which is the gateway to the Philippine Sea… and beyond.
 
Ides of October
 
Last October 15, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio voiced his apprehension about losing Scarborough Shoal if Duterte concedes sovereignty over it in exchange for China’s economic incentives.  He was quoted in a newspaper as saying: If Duterte concedes sovereignty, it is a culpable violation of the Constitution, a ground for impeachment.”  Then he added: “But the more important repercussion is, once Duterte concedes sovereignty, we can never recover it because China will never give it back.  This is because even if the Philippine Supreme Court voids a possible concession by Duterte, China will not be bound by the ruling of the Philippine Supreme Court.”
 
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