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FIRING LINE: When Duterte meets Xi

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By Robert B. Roque, Jr.

Projecting a tone of certainty, President Duterte announced exactly a week ago that Chinese President Xi Jinping had invited him to meet on April 8. As if it were his pride and duty, Duterte mentioned in his Talk to the People that he and China’s leader are friends.

Yet based on the context of their scheduled meeting, he also says that an escalation of the Russian invasion of Ukraine into a nuclear war could be a precursor to China’s launching its own nuclear arsenal – at which point the Philippines would not want to be on the receiving end.

In his own words, Duterte laid out the premise for this meeting very clearly: “I’ve realized that if the war will have a spillover and Russia is attacked through a nuclear weapon or Russia attacks first, then there’s going to be serious trouble. And China will not sit idly there. It will also attack… the problem is, the Philippines will also be affected if there is a full-scale war because there are Americans here.”

Our leader has painted this picture as if we were in the shoes of Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars with Will Smith walking over – only that we know ahead of time that China’s going to “smack the sh*+ out of us.” Today, being the eve of this meeting, I hope Duterte abandons this subservient frame of mind.

He faces Xi on a very auspicious occasion – the last day of what has been vaunted as the largest ever joint Philippines-US Balikatan military exercises in years that involved nearly 9,000 navy, marines, air force, and army personnel, including 5,100 American soldiers.

China will want to downplay these war games, but the Filipino heart that throbs inside Duterte must resist mouthing the idea as if our greatest military alliances were our handicap. Why should we be afraid that Western naval forces make their presence in support of freedom of navigation or that the community of free nations support The Hague ruling in our favor on the South China Sea? This is precisely what maritime expert Jay Batongbacal, director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, blames for China’s wanton incursions in Philippine waters during the Duterte administration.

Early this week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana revealed that a Chinese naval vessel was observing the conduct of war games between Filipino and American soldiers in the West Philippine Sea last Jan. 29-Feb. 1. Rightfully so, our Department of Foreign Affairs filed a diplomatic protest with China for that entry “without permission” close to Cuyo Islands in Palawan and Mindoro Island.

The DFA had filed similar protests over the Chinese Coast Guard vessels’ repeated dangerous “close distance maneuvering,” which risked collision with Philippine Coast Guard vessels patrolling Bajo de Masinloc (Panatag or Scarborough Shoal) from February last year to March this year.

On Sunday, when Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi sat down with DFA Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. in Tunxi, Eastern Anhui province, the Chinese official called on both sides to “remove disturbances calmly and properly manage differences and not let them affect the overall situation of China-Philippines relations.”

On this cue, Duterte must face President Xi with a firm resolve for Philippine interests, which is what Filipinos voted him for in 2016 and what he should valiantly stand for if it were the last thing he were to do, at least, in the final stage of his term.

*         *         *SHORT BURSTS. For comments or reactions, email firingline@ymail.com or tweet @Side_View. Read current and past issues of this column at http://www.thephilbiznews.com

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