Duterte’s red lines: Is it a joke?

Duterte’s red lines: Is it a joke?

Recently, national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon said that President Rodrigo Duterte would go to war if Philippine soldiers were hurt in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Esperon also said: “Or, if our people are hurt there at Pag-asa Island. We are not saying we are going to war, but if they oppress us that may force our hand, because we will not allow ourselves to be oppressed.” Pag-asa, better known as Thitu, is the largest of the islands and outcrops garrisoned by Philippine troops in the West Philippine Sea.

That’s a pretty bold statement considering that last May 22, Duterte insisted that “he will not go to war that the country will not win and would result in the destruction of the armed forces.” In other words, Duterte had capitulated at the mere thought of “war with China.” What a shame.

Interestingly, a few days before, on May 18, a delegation of high government officials went to Hawaii to meet with the chief of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM), Admiral Harry Harris Jr. The delegation consisted of Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Local Government officer-in-charge, Philippine Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez, and Philippine Permanent Representative to the U.N. Teodoro Locsin Jr. Roque said that the purpose of their visit was “to reassure the U.S. that while we are pursuing an independent foreign policy, we have not actually abandoned our traditional ally, the United States.” Or, perhaps he should have said, “We want to get America’s assurance that she would not abandon us in the event of Chinese invasion.” The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs also announced that the two countries had renewed their commitment to strengthen ties.

Red lines

In a recent speech, Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano set three different “red lines” for the disputed areas. He said that Duterte is willing to go to war no matter the consequences if China violates any one of them.

The first red line is any Chinese move to reclaim or build on the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal, which lies just over 100 nautical miles from Philippine shores and within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

The second red line is any coercive Chinese move against the Philippine marine detachment guarding the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal). For the past two decades, a handful of Filipino marines aboard a grounded and rusty vessel, the BRP Sierra Madre, have been stationed in the area to assert the Philippines’ claim over the shoal, which lies within its continental shelf.

The third red line is any unilateral Chinese drilling for natural resources, particularly oil and gas, within the Philippines’ EEZ. “The President has said that: If anyone gets the natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, he will go to war,” Cayetano said.

Creeping invasion

But China doesn’t have to attack. She has been grabbing pieces of Philippine territory since 1994 when she took possession of the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef). Then after building seven artificial islands around reefs in the West Philippine Sea, she wanted to explore the waters within the Philippines’ EEZ, including the mineral-rich Recto Bank (Reed Bank). But when Duterte told Chinese President Xi Jinping during a recent trip to Beijing that the Philippines intended to drill in the Recto Bank, Xi told him: “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.” Whoa! It must have hit Duterte like a double whammy!

In an effort to placate Xi and maintain a friendly relationship, Duterte offered to jointly explore and drill for oil in the Recto Bank on a 60-40 sharing deal. “China has offered joint exploration and joint operation. And I said, maybe, we give you [China] a better deal, 60-40,” Duterte told an audience on April 26. But Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio had earlier said the Philippine Constitution bans “joint development” within the country’s EEZ. Duterte ignored Carpio’s warning and instead he and Xi gave the ”go signal” for their two countries to craft a framework for joint exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

But the word going around Manila these days is that Duterte had supposedly agreed to take a large sum of development loan from China and put the Recto Bank as collateral. If that would be the case, Duterte might as well kiss the Recto Bank good-bye because China would eventually forfeit Recto Bank and not collect the loan. The expected revenue from drilling for oil in the Recto Bank would far exceed the loan amount.

Mining operations and casinos

In the past two years that Duterte has been in power, he has allowed China to take a foothold in the Philippines where Chinese-operated mining operations have mushroomed. There were even evidence that China has been moving large amounts of earth – mountains are being leveled – and loaded into boats for transporting to some island building projects near the Scarborough Shoal. There are many news reports – including photos – of such earth-moving activities in the province of Zambales, which is only about 120 miles away from the Scarborough Shoal.

Another industry that is being taken over by Chinese interests is the casino and gaming industry. Chinese-operated casinos are spreading throughout the country. Take the case of the controversial Boracay closure. The resort island of Boracay was closed last April to clean up what Duterte described as a “cesspool.” He gave the DENR six months to clean up a multitude of environmental issues – overcrowding, garbage, and water pollution. But many believed that what prompted the closure of Boracay was the building of a casino owned by Macau-based company Galaxy Entertainment, which is opposed by the residents of Boracay who want to keep the island as a tourist destination and not a gambling mecca.

Simmering anger

Whether it’s oil or casino revenues or earth taken out of the country, Duterte appears not to be concerned about it. But the people are beginning to feel like they’re being robbed of their patrimony.

And when China started moving aircraft and missiles to the reclaimed islands in the Spratlys, Philippine officials panicked and the people asked what would the government do about it? Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque’s response was: We’re “quietly” protesting China’s militarization.

But Duterte must also have felt the simmering anger of the people. What probably gave him a severe migraine is the fact that Manila is only 10 minutes away from the Mischief, Fiery Cross, and Subi Reefs where China had built airfields and harbors. These reclaimed reefs are now weaponized! Didn’t Xi promise him that China would not deploy aircraft and missiles to these bases? Didn’t someone say, “Promises are made to be broken”?

Realizing the gravity of the situation, Malacañang reassured the public that the government is not taking the alleged Chinese militarization sitting down.
Roque said “the government is exerting all diplomatic means to address the matter. Roque also clarified the government does not consider China as a threat to the country’s national security, especially when now that the Philippines has a newfound friendship with China.” Huh? Sinong bolahin niya? (Whom is he trying to fool?)

At the end of the day, perhaps Duterte should heed Sen. Franklin Drilon’s advice, who said there are other remedies short of going to war with China. “We should assert our sovereignty, not by waging a war against China – we cannot do that – but in other fora, we should be able to continue our campaign in order that we can retrieve those islands that have been occupied by China.” Yes, we should stand on what we’ve won so far: the United Nations-backed arbitral ruling that favored the Philippines. It will be a long diplomatic battle, but one thing is certain: the international community would be behind the Philippines.

Meanwhile, China has not yet responded to Duterte’s red lines. But it would be interesting to know what Beijing’s next move would be? Is China going to take Duterte’s red lines seriously? And this begs the question: Is Duterte serious about his red lines or is it just a joke?

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