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Is Duterte reaching out to Uncle Sam?

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For the most part of his administration, President Rodrigo Duterte has manifested and demonstrated his Anti-American policies, which is based on what he claimed as his personal hatred of the Americans.  Indeed, on several occasions, Duterte threatened to sever relations with the U.S. including the expulsion of American troops who were helping the ill-equipped Philippine military fight terrorism in Mindanao. 

 When he visited China in October 2016, Duterte, addressing his Chinese audience, called for a military and economic “separation” from the United States. “From now on,” he told his audience, “it’s the Philippines, Russia and China against the world.”  And what made him think that he was at par with Russia and China?  He must have been daydreaming, bedazzled by the display of Chinese opulence. But would China’s Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin take Duterte as an equal partner, or would the two superpowers accept and treat Duterte as a “water boy”?

 Upon Duterte’s return to Manila, he lashed out anew at the U.S., saying she could forget a bilateral defense deal.  He said that he hated having foreign troops in his country and told the U.S. not to treat his country “like a dog with a leash.”   

 Duterte, who had expressed his admiration for Xi –- “He is a great president,” he once said – indicated that he would raise the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA) arbitration award — which favored the Philippines — with Xi at a latter date when bilateral relations between the two countries has improved.  He was hoping that China would provide low-interest loans and infrastructure investments in billions of dollars.   

 “We’ll go to war”
Seven months later, in May 2017, Duterte visited Beijing again.  Duterte discussed with Xi the PCA arbitral award.  The PCA ruling clarified Philippine sovereign rights in her 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) including the Reed Bank, which is just 85 nautical miles off the Philippines’ coast.  The PCA ruling also invalidated China’s “nine-dash line,” which delineated her claim over most of the South China Sea. 

At their meeting, 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: “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!  That was blunt!  In no uncertain terms, Xi reminded Duterte to stay out of the South China Sea!  Duterte wasn’t prepared to hear that.   Indeed, it was a rude awakening for him.  He must have felt like the sky had fallen down on him.

 Benham Rise

 Since then, the Philippines stayed clear of Chinese vessels seen in the South China Sea and the Benham Rise, an underwater region larger than Luzon in the Philippine Sea.  Chinese spy ships were also observed in the Benham Rise, a clear sign that China has set her eyes on the mineral-rich region. 

 In my column, “China sets eyes on Benham Rise” (September 30, 2016), 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.  It also said that the volume of natural gas deposits in the area was at par with what was discovered in the Spratly Islands.” 

 If China decides to claim all or part of Benham Rise, the Philippines would be helplessly unprepared to defend it.  And China knows that.  It’s just a matter of time for China to make her move, which begs the question:  How can the Philippines defend her territory from Chinese invasion?  The answer is: No, she can’t, which would bother Duterte to no end.

 Reaching out

 On May 20, 2018, a high-powered Philippine delegation went to Hawaii to meet with U.S Pacific Command (PACOM) Chief Admiral Harry Harris Jr. The delegation consisted of: Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea, Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano, Department of Defense (DOD) Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Eduardo Año, Philippine Ambassador to the U.S.  Jose Manuel Romualdez, and Permanent Representative to the United Nations Teodoro Locsin Jr.

 After the meeting, the DFA announced: “The Philippines and the United States have reaffirmed their firm resolve to bolster their enduring alliance anchored on common values and interest, historic ties, and the Mutual Defense Treaty, in high-level discussions in Honolulu.  The Philippine delegation had a very substantive exchange with Admiral Harris on regional challenges and both sides agreed that the alliance remains consequential to the preservation of regional stability and development.”  The mention of the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) signifies the two allies’ readiness to defend each other, which begs the question: Did they discuss the mechanism of invoking the MDT in the event China goes to war against the Philippines?

 The meeting with PACOM officials came in the wake of reports that China has installed missiles on Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in the Spratly Islands, which China grabbed in 1994, two years after the Philippine Senate closed all U.S. bases in the country.    

 On June 21, 2018, in another diplomatic move, DFA Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano led a delegation to Washington, DC, which included Ambassador to the U.S. Jose Manuel Romualdez and National Security Adviser (NSA) Hermogenes Esperon, Jr.  They met with U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.  The two diplomats agreed to work closely together to further reinforce the partnership between the Philippines and the United States.  They also explored opportunities to enhance bilateral trade, and “increase security cooperation.”  While the meeting appeared to be cordial by diplomatic standards, the haste with which it was arranged suggests that there was urgency to meet with Pompeo.    With China’s deployment of missiles and aircraft on the reclaimed and militarized Mischief Reef, Manila would be within minutes of striking distance of Chinese missiles.  That’s is too close for comfort, which gives Duterte sleepless nights.

 What’s cooking?

 It’s pretty obvious that something is cooking.  The visit of several members of Duterte’s National Security Team  – DFA Secretary Cayetano, DOD Secretary Lorenzana, and NSA Esperon – to Washington, DC to meet with U.S. State and Defense officials to discuss closer US-Philippines bilateral relations, was a far cry from when Duterte expressed disdain and disapproval of the Philippines’ relationship with the U.S, including the stationing of American troops on Philippine soil, which makes one wonder: What prompted Duterte’s sudden change of heart in his attitude towards America?  Could it be presumed that China’s creeping invasion of Philippine territory is a big factor in swaying Duterte away from China and reach out to the Philippines’ century-old ally, Uncle Sam? 

 During the Philippine-US Friendship Day last July 4 in Manila, reporters asked U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim about the prospects of a second meeting between Duterte and U.S. President Donald Trump.  Kim responded that both the Philippines and the U.S. have “strong interest” in pursuing Duterte’s visit to Washington, DC.  Kim mentioned that Trump had invited Duterte to the White House during a phone conversation in May 2017.  He said that it’s just a question of scheduling, and noted that Duterte and Trump have a “strong relationship.”  

 Last July 27, 2018, presidential spokesman Harry Roque confirmed that a visit of Duterte to the U.S. and another meeting with Trump are being worked out.  Earlier, Duterte said that his trip to the U.S. upon the invitation of his “friend” Trump “has something to do with the schedule” and “not because of anybody or any place there.”

 This is quite the contrary to when Duterte vowed never to set foot on American soil.  But as the saying goes: “There are no permanent friends or permanent enemiesonly permanent interests.”  And if there is one “permanent interest” shared by the Philippines and America, it’s the South China Sea.

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