PERRYSCOPE: Why Duterte flip-flops on VFA termination?

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By Perry Diaz

On June 1, President Rodrigo Duterte suspended the termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which was supposed to end August 9, for at least six months due to the coronavirus pandemic and “heightened superpower tensions.”  In a letter to the U.S. Embassy in Manila, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said, “The suspension shall start on even date [June 1] and shall continue for six months, which period is extendible by the Philippines for another six months, after which the countdown to termination shall resume.”  What is this? Installment plan?  So does that give the Philippines an option to renew it as Duterte pleases?

Whatever is in Duterte’s mind, it doesn’t look good for the Philippines to have her alliance with the U.S. on an ON/OFF switch.  What if the U.S. decides not to go along with the suspension? I could just imagine President Donald Trump saying, “Sorry my friend, but the U.S. has changed her priorities vis-à-vis her security alliance with the Philippines.” Then what?

First of all, Duterte shouldn’t have bluffed Trump last February when he terminated VFA. Instead, Trump brushed aside Duterte’s decision to end VFA, saying he did not really mind and it would save money. Trump didn’t even wait until the 30-day notice that Duterte gave.  Bluff called, end of the story.

Maritime dispute

As soon as the termination was accepted, strange things began to happen.  China didn’t waste any time; she filled the vacuum left with the termination of VFA. The first sign that China was up to something was when she stepped up its activities in the disputed South China Sea.  China started operating “research stations” on bases built on Fiery Cross Reef, Subi Reef, and Mischief Reef.  She then deployed special military aircraft on Fiery Cross Reef.  Could they be espionage aircraft?

Then on April 30, China established two districts to administer two disputed groups of islands and reefs in the South China Sea.  One district covers the Paracel Islands, which is disputed by Vietnam, and the other has jurisdiction over the Spratly archipelago, which is disputed by the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan, and China.  China has designated the heavily fortified Fiery Cross Reef as a “regional administrative center” for the entire Spratly archipelago.  China has reclaimed and built artificial islands around seven reefs in the South China Sea, including Fiery Cross Reef, into missile-protected island bases, three of which have runways that can accommodate bombers.

Nine-dash line

The bone of contention is China’s nine-dash line that delineates about 80% of the South China Sea as her sovereign territory and claims the right to build in these waters.  China continues to defy the United Nations Arbitral Court’s historic 2016 decision that invalidated China’s nine-dash line territorial claim.

As tensions continue to rise, China’s People Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) Rear Admiral Lou Yuan, a hawkish military commentator, proclaimed that the continuing dispute over the ownership of the South China Sea could be resolved by sinking two U.S. aircraft carriers.  Undeterred, the U.S. responded by deploying seven nuclear submarines in the South China Sea and three aircraft carriers to the Western Pacific.  In addition, she sent four stealth B-1B Lancer bombers to Guam.  That doesn’t count the four ballistic missile nuclear submarines that are deployed near the coast of China, ready anytime to fire their nuclear warheads to targets in China within minutes of detecting China’s launching of her intercontinental ballistic missiles.  With each submarine carrying 24 MIRV’s – multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles – each capable of hitting a total of 10 targets, China will not survive if war breaks out in the South China Sea.

China reacted by deploying a flotilla of warships to the South China Sea near the Kalayaan group of islands controlled by the Philippines.  This was probably the last straw in the love-hate relationship between the Philippines and China since Duterte announced in October 2016 during his first state visit to Beijing his separation from the U.S.  At that time he declared, “I’ve realigned myself in your [China] ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.” Huh? Since when did the Philippines become part of the China-Russia military partnership?

Those words earned Duterte a lot of “Attaboys” from Chinese President Xi Jinping.  They became BFF — best friends forever. But he should have been wary about becoming BFF with communists.  They cannot be trusted.

They met again in May 2017 in Beijing, Duterte discussed with Xi the issue of “drilling for oil” in the Spratlys.  He 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.”  It must have hit Xi’s eardrums like a ringing tinnitus.  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.”  It was a slap in Duterte’s face.  No host would threaten war against a visiting leader.

Lesson earned

Duterte must have learned a lesson from that dialogue; that is, China will never give an inch of Chinese territory but would claim yours without hesitation. And once you allowed her to take yours, she’d grab for more.  That has always been China’s modus operandi.  During the 14th century, the Ming Dynasty created an army of more than one million troops and the largest navy in the world.  She ruled the seas sending large “treasure ships” around the world under the command Admiral Zheng He, who led seven enormous voyages of exploration around the world.

In 1449, the Ming Dynasty collapsed when the Mongols defeated and captured Ming Emperor Yingzong’s 500,000-men army in the Battle of Tumu; thus, ending the Ming dynasty’s reign and a dream of world dominion.

China Dream

In 2012, five and a half centuries after the Ming Dynasty collapsed, a new Chinese dynasty emerged under the leadership of Xi Jinping.  Known as the “China Dream,” Xi envisaged the great rejuvenation of the Chinese people. Within a few years, he consolidated power in the party and military, taking over leadership in the Chinese Communist Party as Secretary-General, as President of China, and as Chairman of the Central Military Commission.

In 2018, the National People’s Congress removed the two-term limit on the presidency, which effectively allowed Xi to remain in power for life, a feat never achieved by any Chinese leader except Mao Zedong.  Xi achieved economic power that Mao never dreamt of.

But China is not yet ready to face American naval power.  America’s first line of Defense is the First Island Chain that extends from Japan through the Bashi Channel in the Luzon Strait down south to Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and ends in Vietnam in a J-shaped pattern along China’s nine-dash line.

The VFA – or the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) for that matter –provides a key element in the defense of the First Island Chain.  However, it is not crucial to stopping Chinese advances past the Bashi Channel into the Western Pacific.  But with America’s 19 aircraft carriers, 14 ballistic missile submarines, four guided-missile submarines, and 53 attack submarines, U.S. military dominance is assured and Duterte knows that.  And that’s good enough reason for Duterte to remain on the good side of the U.S. regardless of his personal anti-American feelings.

So why did Duterte flip-flop on VFA  termination?  The answer is economic security.  The Philippines needs financial aid to fight the pandemic, which is causing immeasurable difficulty in the Philippine economy.

On April 29, Duterte and Trump spoke by telephone and Trump offered to donate $269 million for the coronavirus rapid response efforts.  This was preceded by $204 million last March.  Both leaders agreed to continue to work together to fight their common enemy.  It seems that whatever animosity exists between the two leaders would have to be set aside for now.  But who knows?  It could be another fresh chapter in the long history of U.S.-Philippines friendship.

For comment, email PerryDiaz@gmail.com

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