President Rodrigo Duterte has accused the United States of building permanent arms depots and unloading arms shipments in various parts of the country without the knowledge or consent of his government. Instead of confronting the US officially with his alleged data, he chose to make a big speech. Dutifully the US Embassy denied the allegation saying, “No such arms depot exist, and there are no plans to build any.” Whose statement should we believe?
The embassy spokesman, Ms. Molly Koscina, is hardly at the same level as the President or any responsible member of his Cabinet. It is an uneven, asymmetric exchange. But it cannot be avoided when one’s zeal for propaganda takes the place of formal diplomatic intercourse. As a citizen, I feel so rotten having to take the word of the spokesman of a foreign government against that of my own president. But under the circumstances, my options are rather limited. The President seems to have a very poor case.
DU30 should’ve acted at once
If the US government has been unloading unauthorized arms shipments, and building permanent arms depots anywhere, in violation of the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement between the two countries, PDU30 should have stopped all those acts at once, or dealt with them through the appropriate channels, instead of making a big speech. The remedy is provided for in the Agreement.
Under Article IV of the EDCA, the Philippines authorizes the US to preposition and store defense equipment, supplies and materiel, including, but not limited to, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief equipment, supplies and materiel at Agreed Locations. US forces shall notify the Armed Forces of the Philippines in advance regarding quantities and delivery schedules of defense equipment, supplies and materiel the US intends to preposition in the Agreed Locations as well as who will make such deliveries. The prepositioned materiel shall not include nuclear weapons.
Under Article III, the US shall have operational control over all construction activities, but the Philippine Designated Authority and its authorized representative shall have access to the entire area of the Agreed Locations. Such access shall be provided promptly, consistent with operational safety and security requirements in accordance with agreed procedures developed by the Parties.
This means that there is no way any US materiel may be introduced into any Agreed Location without having passed the agreed process. If the process is bypassed, and the US forces are able to deploy any materiel anywhere without the prior knowledge and consent of the Philippine government, then the agreement has been breached, and DU30 could protest the breach, through the appropriate channels, even without making a big speech.
Under Article XI of the Agreement, all disputes arising from its implementation should be settled exclusively through consultations between the Parties, not through the newspapers.
What happened under the bases accord
This is the first time a Philippine president has accused the US of deploying unauthorized arms to the Philippines, since the start of the two countries’ military alliance in 1947. Under the 1947 US-Phl military bases agreement, (when the Constitution did not yet ban nuclear weapons within our territory), the US was free to do whatever it wanted to do inside its military bases. And it did stockpile nuclear weapons in the country without the knowledge and consent of the Philippine government.
This came to light during the 1969 Symington hearings in the US Senate, and was confirmed later upon the declassification of certain secret State Department documents in 2006. Sen. Stuart Symington, chairman of the National Stockpile and Naval Petroleum Reserves Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, had learned of the presence of nuclear weapons in the Philippines and had decided to conduct an inquiry into it. This was in October 1969.
Then-President Richard Nixon feared that disclosure of this fact, which had been withheld from the Philippine government and public, could seriously affect Philippine-US relations, especially on the eve of the Philippine Oct. 11, 1969 presidential elections. Nixon therefore instructed the State Department, through Ambassador Robert Mc Clintock, to withhold the information from the Symington inquiry under the cover of executive privilege.
Mc Clintock, however, felt that suppressing the information risked the danger of a leak, which could have more dangerous consequences than what Nixon was trying to avoid. So he recommended that the Secretaries of State and Defense brief the members of the Symington subcommittee on the facts of the case, with a request that they cooperate in keeping the secret from the public.
The declassified US documents do not say what finally happened to the nuclear weapons. Were they ever removed after the military bases closed down in 1991? If so, when and how? I asked the same question in a column for another newspaper in 2013, and never got a reply from the Aquino administration. Given the nuclear weapons-free provision of the present Constitution, this is one question DU30 may want to raise right now. But as for his present allegation, he would be well advised to file the necessary information through the appropriate channels, by no means not through the media, so that it could be adequately addressed.
Some observers tend to believe that DU30’s allegations are primarily meant for sheer propaganda. He is now caught in a bind on how to navigate the US-China diplomatic waters, after threatening to “separate” militarily and economically from the US and align himself with Russia and China “against the world,” and then having to walk back from that threat, after the victory of Donald Trump, whom he admires and considers a political “look alike.” He had gone ballistic against the US after Barack Obama took a keen interest in the drug killings, but now the villain is gone, and Trump has asked him to drop in for coffee if ever he came to New York or Washington, D.C. So everything has changed.
When Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe reportedly told him that Trump would not criticize nor condemn his extra-judicial drug killings if he would stop badmouthing Washington, he readily conceded, and has not used an invective or cuss word on any American individual since. He has even suspended his murderous war on drugs, which has already killed close to 7,000 suspects, although this was prompted by the brutal kidnapping and murder of a Korean national, who was killed inside the compound of the PNP Central Headquarters, cremated and his remains flushed down the sewer. But when Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr. asked Mr. Duterte “what happens to China now?” after he had accepted Trump’s reputed offer, he told his top communist adviser, “leave that to me.”
Trying to reassure China
His renewed anti-US rhetoric, therefore, minus the cuss words and invectives, is seen as his real answer to Evasco. It is an effort to reassure China that he remains a dependable pro-Chinese, anti-American ally. By no means is this something which China has demanded as the price of closer ties between Manila and Beijing; the oldest Oriental civilization is capable of understanding that it is probably in the DU30 government’s best interests to maintain simultaneous and equidistant friendly relations with the two competing powers. But DU30 is at heart a small-town politician, and behaves like a local thug whose friendship with one party demands enmity with another.
Following Rex Tillerson’s confirmation as Secretary of State, DU30 will have to watch Trump’s next moves (economic, political and military) on China. Most analysts see a colossal trade war breaking out between the two powers primarily because of the US President’s own campaign pronouncements. They also see new tension resurging in the South China Sea following Tillerson’s earlier statement that he will not allow China to have access to and use of the military structures they have constructed on the artificial islands in the Spratlys. After talking of separating from the US, DU30 may not be able to support Tillerson’s tough posture, but having agreed to a modus vivendi with Trump he may not be able to oppose it openly either.
Walking the tightrope
So he has to find ways of walking the tightrope on the US-China circus. So without really disturbing EDCA, he had to talk to the press about unauthorized arms shipments and the building of permanent arms depots, instead of asking his own people to verify reports about them. And now he talks of acquiring more weapons from China and asking the Chinese navy or coast guard to help him fight piracy in the Sulu area by “patrolling international waters.” Obviously, he realizes he cannot ask the Chinese to help him patrol the country’s shorelines and territorial waters, without raising a big howl from his own people, so he wants them to patrol international waters instead.
That is safe enough. But why would the Chinese, or anybody else for that matter, need DU30’s prompting to patrol “international waters,” if ever they had a mind to? Clearly what is happening here is that DU30 has realized that running a government is a day job that requires some moral and intellectual capability and professional skill. If one doesn’t have both or either, it would show sooner or later. This is now compounded by the latest pronouncement of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front, which caught my attention precisely as I was finishing this column, that they are withdrawing their unilateral ceasefire occasioned by the peace talks between NDF-1 and NDF-2, and are resuming belligerent action.
Framed within DU30’s audacious move to place himself at the center of US-China global competition, he has organized a government that includes seasoned CPP/NPA/NDF members in the Cabinet, and given to the first of them (Evasco) more powers than any Cabinet member ever had since the Republic came into existence. Evasco runs the Office of the President, supervises 18 critical agencies with direct links to the grassroots, leads the Kilusang Pagbabago (Movement for Change), which is being prepared as the principal engine of government, in case of a radical shift to a revolutionary government.
With the collapse of his announced separation from the US on one hand, and the need to keep an appearance of being anti-US on the other, and the breakdown of the peace talks and the resurgence of armed conflict with the CPP/NPA/NDF, DU30 may have to decide whether to keep the CPP/NPA/NDF members of his government and sign the terms of surrender dictated by their party chief, or pivot somewhere else. It is one hell of a mess. He will need all the luck and help in the world to find his way out of it.