Duterte’s Pivot to Peace

A new leaf has been turned in our relationship with China. From a dragon poker, our country has now become a dragon whisperer. Thanks to the visionary leadership of the current chief architect of our foreign policy, President Rodrigo Duterte, we’re now veering away from the dangerous path the Aquino administration took us, pivoting to a better, saner, and more peaceful geopolitical path.

Duterte’s foreign policy shift is grounded on reframing China from an enemy we must destroy into an adversary we must win over.

Former President Benigno Aquino 3rd compared China’s stance in the South China Sea (SCS) to Nazi Germany’s annexation of Sudetenland. He didn’t do it just once, but twice: first in 2014, during an interview with The New York Times; and second in 2015, while delivering a speech before businessmen in Nazi Germany’s former ally in Asia – Japan.

Framing China this way invites a belligerent policy. How else should the world respond to another Nazi Germany other than the use of force?

For Aquino, our conflict with China is a zero-sum battle between good and evil. For Duterte, China isn’t an evil we must destroy but a neighbor we must co-exist peacefully with, a market we must tap, and a possible partner in the further development of our country.

For Aquino, our conflict in the SCS seems to define the entirety of our bilateral relationship with China. For Duterte, that conflict is just a tiny aspect of it. The joint statement of the Philippines and China after Duterte’s détente mission to Beijing in October 2016 emphasized it: “Both sides affirm that contentious issues are not the sum total of the Philippines-China bilateral relationship.”

Vice President Leni Robredo is singing the same belligerent tune of her party mate.

During a forum on the SCS disputes at the University of the Philippines on June 12, 2018, Robredo declared China as “the most serious external threat” to the Philippines since World War 2.

A dangerous statement for it identifies China as an enemy, not just a rival, but an enemy equivalent to what Japan was to us during World War 2.

Duterte’s track is one of conciliation built on identifying China as a friend with whom we have a disagreement. With this framing, issues that arise along the way are considered as wrinkles that could be ironed out with persistent pursuit of diplomacy. Compromise is the eventual goal.

Meanwhile, Robredo’s track is confrontation. As such, issues that arise along the way aren’t wrinkles that could be ironed out but further evidence that China is an ever-growing threat. Hence, we must act to stop that threat. No compromise.

Fortunately, Duterte is our president and not Robredo’s running mate, Mar Roxas, who vowed to continue Aquino’s foreign policy line. Instead of poking the dragon, Duterte coaxes it. In a span of just two years, he seems to be successfully finding the proverbial one soft spot of every dragon. The improvement in the situation in the Scarborough Shoal is the evidence.

Since he began fishing in the Scarborough Shoal in 2000, they were operating freely there, said one of the fishermen presented by Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque in a June 11, 2018 press briefing. 

Then April 2012 happened: a seven-week naval stand-off between China and the Philippines ensued as a result of the miscalculation and poor conflict management by the Aquino-Del Rosario foreign policy regime. The Scarborough Shoal remained inaccessible to our fishermen until Duterte changed our country’s approach to China — from being a dragon poker to its whisperer.

That incident could have been better managed if the Aquino administration already strengthened the bilateral consultation mechanism and continued the confidence-building we had with China. The Philippines vs. China arbitration decision on jurisdiction released in October 2015 tells the story of how our country seemed to have rejected China’s offer to do that.

On January 14, 2012, Undersecretary Erlinda Basilio of the Department of Foreign Affairs and her Chinese counterpart, Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin, had a consultation meeting.

In that meeting, the Philippines insisted on multilateral talks, which would include Asean countries, not all of which have anything to do with the territorial conflict in the SCS. China expressed some worry that non-bilateral mechanisms “will only add to the mistrust” between the Philippines and China. As a counter-offer, China invited the Philippines “to start negotiations…in a bilateral way and take stock of the current dispute and problem,” and for the two countries to start discussing “the establishment of a China-Philippines maritime consultation mechanism or resume the confidence-building mechanism.” Our country rejected that offer.

Duterte turned the situation around the moment he won as president.

As reported by “Aksyon News 5” on May 25, 2016, Zhao Jinhua, China’s Ambassador to the Philippines, said that during his meeting with Duterte, the latter “raised the issue [of Filipino fishermen]to [him], personally.” Zhao’s impression of Duterte was “he cares about the poor people — the fishermen.” And as confirmed by the fishermen that News 5 interviewed at the time, the Chinese Coast Guard no longer chased them away.

One of the fruits of October 2016 of the Duterte-led rapprochement mission to China was the establishment of a bilateral consultation mechanism, which was activated during the Scarborough incident this year.

Reacting to that incident, Zhao said: “In English there is a saying, ‘Even in the best regulated families, accidents happen.’ So, we always have bad apples but if we have bad apples, you know what I’m going to do, I’m going to throw into the SCS and feed to the fish.”

Instead of China just downplaying or ignoring the incident, as it had during the previous administration, the Chinese ambassador released a strong statement, categorizing some of their citizens as “bad apples’ that should be thrown into the sea and be fed to the fish. •