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Unceremoniously ousted as Chief Justice by an eight-vote majority of the Supreme Court, Maria Lourdes Sereno must be contemplating what her future will be?  During a press conference in the aftermath of the controversial “quo warranto” petition that passed muster of the Supreme Court, Sereno told reporters at a press briefing that she “believes she does not have to hold her old title to continue her fight against President Rodrigo Duterte's policies, which she said have taken a toll on the poor and marginalized.”  It was her opening salvo in her war against the forces led by Duterte who conspired to remove her from the High Court.  Speaking in the vernacular, Sereno said: “Many people are going hungry and many are getting killed.”  It was the perfect message to wage a campaign against the incumbent president.


Sereno’s departure from the Supreme Court opens new doors for her, which is certainly a welcome opportunity to advocate reforms in the country’s judicial system.  And there is no better venue than to serve in the Senate where she could use it as a platform to effect changes in the dysfunctional Judiciary.  The opportunity to do so came from Liberal Party (LP) President Sen. Francis Pangilinan who offered her a spot on the LP’s senatorial slate in next year’s midterm elections.  Pangilinan said Sereno would be a strong addition to the opposition.  “We need strong women in our ticket,” Pangilinan said.


Indeed, Sereno, who has never held an elective office before, would add to the opposition line-up her broad legal and judicial experience, which is sorely lacking in today’s electoral process where candidates for office are usually drawn from the entertainment sector.  In essence, the qualification that is being used in selecting candidates is “popularity,” which of course translates to the ability of candidates to get votes and win elections.  Gone are the days when candidates were some of the best legal minds in the country, the likes of which include Jose P. Laurel, Claro M. Recto, Quentin Paredes, Jose Diokno, Emmanuel Pelaez, and Camilo Osias.  Although Osias was not a lawyer – he was an educator – he was an eloquent orator whose persistent advocacy paid off in 1932 with the passage of the Hare–Hawes–Cutting Act, which put the Philippines on the road to independence in 1946.  Today, actors, comedians, TV personalities, basketball players, and boxers dominate the political process.   


Conflicting laws

It is no wonder then that there are a lot of conflicting laws that contravene each other, thus sowing confusion in the interpretation of the law.  Take for example the ouster of Sereno.  The Constitution is very clear as to how Supreme Court justices are removed from office, which is by impeachment.  When the impeachment case against Sereno stalled in the House of Representatives, the Duterte administration resorted to using a quo warranto petition.  But quo warranto has never been used before in lieu of impeachment. Nevertheless, eight of the Supreme Court justices, comprising the majority, voted in favor of the quo warranto petition.  But who is there to challenge the validity of quo warranto among members of the High Court?   In essence, the use of quo warranto to remove Sereno can be best described as “judicial voodoo.” 


Judicial voodoo

In the Supreme Court ruling that absolved Justice Mariano del Castillo of plagiarism“Judicial Voodoo vs. Rule of Law” (November 2, 2010), I wrote: “The Supreme Court ruling defied conventional logic and used convoluted rationale that could only be construed as an aberration – or abrogation – of established norms and standards.   It was classic case of ‘Judicial voodoo’ taking precedence over the rule of law where the magistrates used mumbo-jumbo reasoning [to arrive at a decision].”


“Another controversial ruling of the Supreme Court was when it totally ignored Section 15 Article VII of the Constitution -- which bans midnight appointments – and allowed then President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to appoint Justice Renato Corona as Chief Justice during the prohibited period.  This could only be construed as ‘judicial voodoo’ where rule of law was debased for the purpose of circumventing the constitution for the aggrandizement of a few.” [Ibid]


“Sad to say, with Corona at the helm of the Supreme Court until 2018 [Note: Corona was impeached on December 12, 2011] — when he reaches mandatory age retirement — and the other Arroyo appointees holding a majority until then, the Aquino administration would be under the spell of ‘judicial voodooism’ for a long time to come.   Are these the signs that portend to the coming of the Dark Age in Philippine jurisprudence?  Or, are we already at that age?” [Ibid]


In the case of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the quo warranto petition, the majority disregarded the constitutional provision on impeaching constitutional officers and blindly used convoluted reasoning to judicially lynch Sereno.  The sad part is that there was no higher authority that could override the Supreme Court justices’ lack of judicial aptitude in interpreting the Constitution.


The quo warranto petition against Sereno was filed before the Supreme Court by Solicitor General Jose Calida to remove her from her post as the Supreme Court Chief Justice. The petition was made to nullify then President Benigno Aquino III’s appointment of Sereno as Chief Justice of the High Court.  The legal community, including the Integrated Bar of the Philippines (IBP) and a battery of law deans and professors, reportedly denounced Calida’s petition as “unconstitutional.”  Many legal luminaries are of the opinion that allowing Sereno to be ousted via quo warranto not only violated the constitutional provision on impeachable officials and the rule of court, but it would also make justices of the High Court, and the entire Judiciary, vulnerable to undue pressure and intimidation from the President, who is the appointing authority on all judicial appointments, from Municipal Judges to Supreme Court Justices.  


Sereno’s options

With Sereno out of government service, she is faced with four viable options, viz: (1) Retire and write her memoirs; (2) Go back to the practice of law; (3) Form or join a public interest group to advocate for judicial reform; or (4) Run for office.  Under Option 1, Sereno retires and devotes her time to writing her memoirs, which would tell her story and expose the inequity she suffered from the Executive Branch.  But at 58 years of age, she’s too young to go into retirement.  Under Option 2, Sereno goes back to the practice of law, which would be financially rewarding for her.  Under Option 3, Sereno forms or joins a public interest group to advocate for judicial reform and to overhaul or streamline the Judiciary Branch to make it more effective and responsive to the public’s needs.  Under Option 4, Sereno runs for Senator, which would give her the opportunity to pursue her advocacies at the highest legislative level in government.  Winning a Senate seat would effectively vindicate her of the accusations made against her, which led to her ouster from the High Court.   Indeed, the possibility of Sereno running for a Senate seat next year is one of the best news since Duterte became president. Sereno would bring a lot of experience to the Legislative Branch.  Since there are only a few lawmakers who actually know the law, Sereno’s entry into the political arena would be an opportune time for her to serve the public’s interests and make a great deal of difference.


When asked if she’s going to run for office, Sereno said she has yet to discuss the matter with her team because she wants to focus on her legal and political problems for now.   But she should make up her mind soon because there is barely a year left to the 2019 elections.  She should position herself at the head of the pack of senatoriables.  The sooner, the better.  She should also be cognizant that politics is a game where latecomers rarely make it to the finish line.  Indeed, she has only one chance to win a Senate seat.  If she misses that chance, it’s good-bye for her.


So, quo vadis, Sereno? (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )


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In my column last month, titled “Boracay: Paradise Lost,” I wrote: “ Today, Boracay is facing a multitude of environmental issues – overcrowding, garbage, and water pollution -- and there are no easy solutions to fix them. The worsening conditions had prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to threaten to close the popular resort island, which he described as a ‘cesspool.’  He instructed Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) Secretary Roy Cimatu to resolve the problems in six months.”


But Cimatu has a problem bigger than his head.  The number one problem that’s causing his migraine is the non-enforcement of an ordinance requiring residents and business establishments to connect to the island’s sewerage system.  DENR has given businesses not connected to the sewer lines one month to link up or face sanctions. 


What we’re talking about here is just the tip of the iceberg.  With the number of visitors increasing 14% every year, it’s projected to hit 2.2 million in 2018.  But the environment may have reached a point of no return where it would take 25 years or more to rehabilitate and restore it to its pristine condition.  But that’s easier said than done.  The problem is that nobody seems to be interested in fixing the damage to the environment.  They just want to deal with “beautifying” the landscape. 


Faced with an impossible order to fix this gargantuan environmental problem, Cimatu might just have to quit his high-paying government job and be content with his hefty retirement pay as a retired four-star general.  He served as Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) until he reached the mandatory retirement age of 56 in September 2002.   He served in that position for four months.


Think of Oahu

Given his military background, Cimatu expressed disapproval of the planned construction of a 23-hectare casino in Boracay.  He said that Boracay is not the place for this type of establishment.  He cited Boracay’s limited capacity and the DENR’s goal to restore it to its former pristine state.  Although a 23-hectare slice of the island is small relative to the island’s 1,032-hectare size, it would expand the commercial use of the island to a point where it would lose its “Paradise” image.  It would be another Oahu, a Hawaiian island “Paradise,” which had, within a few generations, become so commercialized and packed with people.  It has become one of the most expensive real estate in America.  Nobody calls it “Paradise” anymore.  Its land area is about 100 times larger than Boracay.  Can you imagine how Boracay would look like 30 years from now?  Think of Oahu.


Cimatu said that he did not receive any requests for permits for the construction of a casino on the island.  He indicated that he was caught off guard by the reports that plans to build a casino are already underway.   He also clarified that DENR has been planning the rehabilitation and closure of Boracay “months before these reports began to surface.” 


“No farms in Boracay”


Meanwhile, Duterte approved the recommendation of three government agencies for a six-month closure of Boracay effective April 26 to make way for its rehabilitation.  Duterte also announced his plans to subject the island for land reform since the island is “agricultural.” His statement has become the butt of jokes among the locals. “There are no farms here,” a resident told a reporter.  “I plant vegetables on our rooftop.”


It’s interesting to note that Cimatu couldn’t make official statements about building the casino because DENR hasn’t been approached by any Chinese businessman.  But Cimatu asserted that if the plan pushes through, the project would have to comply with Environmental regulations.  But a provisional license has already been granted by the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR) for the casino by Macau-based company Galaxy Entertainment and their Filipino partner Leisure and Resorts World Corp.


But it seems that Cimatu doesn’t really have a role in the approval process for the casino.   As it turned out, Francis Lui Yiu Tung, vice chairman of Galaxy Entertainment, has been talking to Duterte to discuss “potential business opportunities in the Philippines.” 


Galaxy will partner with Philippine-based Leisure and Resorts Work Corp. to open a $300m to $500m casino on Boracay.  At present, Melco Resorts is the only Macau-based operator to have a footprint in the Philippines.  Melco’s $1bn City of Dreams Manila opened its doors in Manila’s Entertainment City in 2015.With the rush to build casinos on Philippine soil, PAGCOR said that it would refrain from issuing new gaming licenses in Manila during the next five years, following requests by existing integrated resort operators.  Interestingly, Galaxy’s license application was submitted before the ban took effect.  Needless to say, Galaxy’s competitors aren’t happy about PAGCOR’s decision, which obviously favors Galaxy.


Another point of interest is Galaxy’s Philippine-based partner, Leisure & Resorts World Corporation.  Leisure & Resorts World Corporation, through its subsidiaries, engages in bingo gaming business in the Philippines. The company provides traditional and electronic bingo gaming services; operates and licenses eGames stations; licenses, monitors, and regulates various i-gaming activities of game operators and entities. It also conducts junket gaming operations; owns and operates the Midas Hotel and Casino; and develops and operates resorts. In addition, the company engages in gaming, recreation, and leisure activities; and development and leasing of real estate properties. As of December 31, 2016, it had approximately 9,790 E-Bingo machines in 138 bingo parlors. Leisure & Resorts World Corporation. [Source:]


It is with great anticipation what this partnership between a casino and a bingo operator would bring to the people of Boracay, particularly to those whose livelihood depends on tourism.  Would it benefit the people?  Or would it be the milking cow of the casino operators? 


One of the dangers of having a casino in Boracay is the further deterioration of the environment.  Think of the human traffic it would create?  Has an environmental impact study been done? 


Another danger is that a casino would be a magnet for criminal activities such as organized crime, illegal drugs, illegal gambling, and prostitution. 


Uncertain future


Right now, with Boracay facing an uncertain future, its citizens are deprived of the revenue generated by tourism.  And there is no telling how long the closure would be. With no other industry other than tourism, the closure would affect some 17,000 workers.  However, it is anticipated that the Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) will hire some 5,000 informal sector workers and members of indigenous communities for temporary cleanup jobs, which begs the question: What will happen to the 12,000 soon-to-be out-of-work employees?  In a move that creates more confusion and chaos than what the tourism businesses would be faced with, DOLE Secretary Silvestre Bello III ordered business owners not to lay off any of their workers during the six-month closure, which is set to start April 26. In a labor advisory Bello issued on April 6, he said, "Temporary suspension of business operations should not and must not result in the termination or separation of any employee.”  He said that businesses can only observe the “no work, no pay” scheme or let their workers use leave credits during the closure.


No matter how DOLE cuts it, the closure would result in unemployment for some 12,000 workers, many of whom are from other provinces who took jobs in Boracay to support their families back home.  There simply is no other way to generate income for them.


At the end of the day, while there is no easy way to solve Boracay’s environmental problems, allowing a Macau-based conglomerate to operate a casino on the island would be detrimental to the preservation of the country’s patrimony.  The best and surest way to save Boracay from the ravages created by carpetbaggers and profiteers is to ban the operation of casinos on the island.   Duterte should not allow Boracay to fall victim to man’s greed for profit.  Don’t put Boracay in Galaxy’s orbit. (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )


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In a gesture of friendship, South Korean President Moon Jae-in hosted a luncheon for Kim Yo-jong, sister of North Korean Leader Kim Jong-un after the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.  It was the most significant diplomatic encounter between the two Koreas in many years.


Their meeting was preceded by another event, when dignitaries from around the world assembled at the Olympic Stadium’s VIP box.  In the box sat twelve world leaders and their spouses, who included U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, North Korea’s nominal head of state, Kim Yong Nam, and Kim Yo-jong, Kim Jong-un’s sister. The presence of Ms. Kim signals a thawing of tensions between the two Koreas.


Interestingly, Pence who was seated on the front row with his wife Karen to his right, was just a few feet away from Kim Yo-jong who was seated on the second row right behind Mrs. Pence, an arm’s length away from Pence.  It was reported in the news that Pence seemed to have made no effort to acknowledge her. It’s interesting to note that by not acknowledging her presence, it is considered a “snub” – an insult in Asian cultures.  It certainly would have earned Pence – and by extension, the United States – some respect had he simply nodded to acknowledge her presence.  It was a diplomatic faux pas, which Pence could have avoided with a smile.   But as it turned out, he coldly ignored her and watched the entire show with a stiff neck.


Missed opportunity


What could have been a great opportunity to start a new chapter in U.S.-North Korea relations, Pence’s seemingly arrogant stance had doused any prospect to jump start bilateral talks between the two countries… or even better, a trilateral negotiation including South Korea.   It could also open the door for the inclusion of China in future talks, particularly the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.  But to convince North Korea to abandon her nuclear program would be an exercise in futility.  It would be like telling a little boy to throw his marbles away.  No way!


But as North Korea grows up and matures into a more responsible society, the notion of peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas gains viability.  But first, the two Koreas must end the state of war that they’re in since the Korean Armistice was signed in 1953.   


Korean Reunification


But a final peace agreement has yet to be achieved, not with the current political situation.  And for it to evolve into a détente between the two Koreas, they must demonstrate that they’re willing to sit down and discuss the issues that have driven a wedge between them.  The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics would have offered that opportunity.  For the first time in 65 years, the two nations joined together in an Olympics parade as One Korea.  And proudly beaming with a smile, South Korean President Moon seemed to be enjoying playing host. Surely, he is looking at the Winter Olympics as an opportunity to re-establish bilateral talks with North Korea.


Although it’s too soon to talk about reunification without inciting protests from South Korean conservatives -- who have been critical of the use of the Unification Flag – the timing for such an overture fits perfectly well.  The conservatives claimed that the Reunification Flag has undermined South Korea’s “big moment” as host to the Olympics.  


Generational loyalty


Incidentally, the conservatives used to be avowedly pro-reunification.  However, over the years, their numbers dwindled, which paradoxically is indicative of generational loyalty; that is, younger generations of South Koreans identify themselves distinctly different from North Koreans.  To them, the concept of “One Korea” and “shared nationalism” is fading away. As one South Korean think tank researcher said, “The more and more we move to younger generations, the idea that we are one people is disappearing.”  A recent survey by RealMeter showed that only four out of 10 South Koreans favored the idea of the two Koreas flying the Unification Flag at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.  By contrast, a similar poll conducted in 2002 showed 76% of South Koreans approved of flying the Reunification Flag during the 2002 Asian Games in Busan, South Korea.


While South Korean “nationalism” may be a major factor in blocking any attempt to reunify the two Koreas, “family reunification” has a strong emotional pull in bringing the two Koreas under one government in an open society.  It’s hard to imagine how this could be achieved with North Korea ruled by an authoritarian government in a communist society, while South Korea, by contrast, is governed democratically in a capitalistic free market economy.  South Korea is one of the richest countries in the world, while North Korea is a pauper state.  


Unifying the two Koreas


Politics aside, it would be ideal to unify the two Koreas under the South Korean model simply because the union would have a better chance of thriving.  It would bring progress to the lives of 25.6 million North Korean.  If unification is to be done under a North Korean government, what do you think would happen to the lives of the 51.1 million South Koreans who would be forcibly integrated into a repressive communist society?


But the problem with unifying the two Koreas under a South Korean government is that China would most likely object to such union.  There is just no way that China would agree to letting go of North Korea, which has served as a buffer zone to China’s eastern flank.  And with nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles that North Korea could use to threaten South Korea, Japan, and America’s western periphery, the U.S. nuclear defense umbrella is weakened.


But China’s objection to a unified Korea under a South Korean government is not the only problem.   Although the U.S. must appear to favor “One Korea” under a South Korean government, the U.S. could be taking a political risk because once a unified Korea is achieved under a South Korean government, there is no assurance that South Korea’s defense alliance with the U.S. would survive in its current form.  Indeed, with the elimination of a North Korean nuclear threat and massive troop invasion, the U.S.-South Korea defense alliance would no longer be as needed as it is today, which means that South Korea would eventually ask the 28,500 American troops to leave.  And in the case of China, there would no longer be a need to be adversarial.  China had always been trying to maintain friendly bilateral relations with South Korea and if North Korea doesn’t exist anymore, there is no reason why they can’t be friends.  After all, China is South Korea’s biggest trading partner.  Indeed, China would immensely benefit -- politically, economically, and militarily --from a unified Korea


Kim Jong-un’s invitation


During the luncheon hosted by Moon, Kim Yo-jong extended a formal invitation to Moon to visit North Korea.  Moon responded by suggesting the two countries “should accomplish this by creating the right conditions,” adding that talks between North Korea and the United States were also needed, and requested that “North Korea be more active in talking with the US.”  That was a smart move by Moon.  Clearly, Moon still needs the protective nuclear umbrella of Uncle Sam.


If Kim agrees to Moon’s suggestion to bring the U.S. to the negotiating table, then it would open the door to a peaceful resolution of the Korean people’s quest for reconciliation and reunification.  


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Ever since the Constitution was drawn in 1987 in the aftermath of the EDSA People Power Revolution, several attempts have been made to revise or change the Constitution.  The most common reason for a charter change was the extension of the president’s term, which was originally set for a single six-year term. For some reason those elected were bitten by a “presidential bug” that afflicted them with a desire to stay in the office longer than six years.


The idea of extending the president’s term began with the late dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos who declared martial law in 1972 prior to the expiration of his second term.  He remained in office until 1986 when the people who became fed up with his corrupt and brutal regime ousted him.


The late President Cory Aquino was the first to serve under the single six-year term. Close to the end of her term, many of her supporters encouraged her to run for a second term arguing that she was not covered by the single six-year term imposed by the 1987 Constitution.  She refused to run.  She also opposed attempts to amend the Constitution to do away with term limits; thus, allowing the reelection of incumbent presidents.   Her successor, Fidel V. Ramos tried to amend the Constitution by pushing for an initiative.  The initiative failed and never went beyond first base. 


Gloria’s game plan


In my column, “Betrayal of EDSA” (June 9, 2009), I wrote: “In 2001, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo came to power by way of a sham People Power revolution that deposed president Joseph Estrada.  The people unwillingly relented hoping that Gloria would turn the country around.  But within a few days after she took over the presidency, a major corruption scandal occurred involving Gloria’s Secretary of Justice. Evidently, corruption was seeded into her administration the day she took over the presidency. EDSA was betrayed. They used her to gain power for themselves.


“With one year left in her term of office, many people are convinced that Gloria would do whatever it takes to remain in power beyond 2010. [In 2006] she almost succeeded in getting a Charter change approved through a people’s initiative. However, the Supreme Court rejected the legality of the people’s initiative. [Had the Supreme Court voted in favor of the ‘people’s initiative,’ Gloria would have been the country’s Prime Minister by now with an open-ended term of office. That is, as long as her political allies in Parliament would support her, she’d remain in power… indefinitely].

“On May 28, 2009, Gloria merged the Lakas-CMD and Kampi parties into one under her leadership. Right after the ceremonies merging the two largest political parties, the word was that Gloria talked to the congressmen behind closed doors. According to leaks from insiders, her marching orders to them were to pass House Resolution 1109 as soon as possible. HR 1109 would convene the House as a Constituent Assembly (Con-Ass) for the purpose of amending the 1987 constitution… without the Senate. According to news reports, Gloria supposedly promised each congressman P20 million for his or her ‘yes’ vote on HR 1109.

“On June 2, the House of Representatives passed -- nay, railroaded -- HR 1109 by voice vote. The debate was cut short denying the few oppositionists an opportunity to speak out against HR 1109. But what could the handful of oppositionists have done? Tyranny of the majority prevailed. Once again, EDSA was betrayed.”


New Constitution


HR 1109 triggered massive protest rallies against the attempt to rewrite the Constitution, which was perceived to be a move by Gloria’s allies in the House of Representatives to extend her term beyond June 2010.

With cha-cha stopped on its track, Gloria’s allies pursued another avenue — they pushed her to run for Congress.  She did and has been member of Congress since then.  Now she is posed to take another shot for a national office in conjunction with Duterte’s push for a charter change to replace the form of government to that of a federal system before the 2019 elections.


According to news reports, a draft of the new constitution is in the works.  There are also plans to call for a joint session of Congress, which would be converted into a constituent assembly (con-ass) to revise the1987 Constitution.  The body would then produce a draft of the proposed federal constitution, which would then be submitted in a plebiscite during the May barangay elections.


However, many believe that with a tight timetable, there might be attempts to cancel the 2019 elections for senators, congressmen, and thousands of local officials.   Known as No-El (No Election), it is expected to entice holdover national and local officials to go along with it.  But if Duterte fails to pursue No-El, well…. Duterte could always declare a revolutionary government (rev-gov).  With members of Congress on his side and the military could be “bought,” only the Supreme Court could stop him, unless he makes a move to abolish the Supreme Court. 


Incidentally, recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) polls show that a large number of Filipinos disagree with Duterte’s plan to declare rev-gov.  They found that 39% disagreed, 31% agreed, and 30% were undecided on declaring Duterte's anti-‘destabilization’ provision over the country.  But regardless whether the people agreed or disagreed, Duterte is believed to be bent on declaring a rev-gov if that would achieve his agenda, which many believe was taken from a page out of Marcos’ playbook.


Federal system


It is interesting to note that Gloria would seem to play an important role in Duterte’s plan. It’s been often mentioned that the federal system that what Duterte had in mind would be a parliamentary form of government.  If such is the case, then more than likely a prime minister would serve as the head of government while the president would remain head of state.  Or it could be similar to the French template, which has a strong president that sets policy and a prime minister that runs the state bureaucracy. 


Gloria is a trusted confidant of Duterte, which would ensure strong working relationship between the two should they share power as president and prime minister.


But what is unusual in their seemingly strange relationship is that Duterte is a hard-nosed anti-corruption crusader while Gloria had presided over one of the most – if not the most – corrupt administrations in the Philippines.  It would be hard to imagine how they could work together in that kind of environment. 


With Duterte and Gloria working in tandem, it would be hard for the opposition – if any -- to “fiscalize” them.  There would be no checks and balances since it is expected that the legislature would be stacked up with Duterte’s political allies who would do Duterte’s bidding.  Do you remember Marcos’ Kilusang Bagong Bayan (New Society Movement) where he got 98% of the parliament’s vote all the time?


But the real danger in Duterte’s attempt to shift to federalism is not the system itself but the people who would run the system.  Then the danger of autocratic rule seeps in, which could lead to repression of the people’s rights.  Then what?


At this point in the country’s history where relative peace and economic progress is taking quantum leap, it is best to maintain the status quo and not to disturb the social equilibrium of the nation and derail its prosperity.


At the end of the day, dancing cha-cha to Duterte’s tune could lead to missteps to the detriment of the people.


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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?


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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! 


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. 




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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