SINCE early this year we have been cued on President Rodrigo Duterte’s Maytime visit to China for the One Belt, One Road summit meeting hosted by President Xi Jinping. It was going to be a very important meeting, said senior sources at the Chinese embassy in Manila, and Xi had personally asked DU30 to attend. At that time, there was no news about other heads of state coming—only Cabinet ministers mostly involved in trade, transport, and infrastructure.
So it came to pass that our travel-weary President came down to Beijing, from Cambodia and Hong Kong, for the highly publicized meeting. Pictures were taken of the President and his live-in partner Honeylet Avanceña with Chinese President and Madame Xi during the welcoming banquet for the 1,500 participants from 130 countries, including 29 heads of state and government leaders, the UN Secretary General, the president of the World Bank, and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund.
But our man was visibly absent at the grand opening at the China National Convention Center. There Xi called China’s One Belt, One Road initiative a “project of the century,” spanning thousands of miles and years, and embodying “the spirit of peace and cooperation, openness and inclusiveness, mutual learning and mutual benefit.” Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan shared in the keynote, praising China’s role in the search for economic progress and peace in the world. It was a great Chinese moment.
Absent at opening
Not all Manila newspapers noticed PDU30’s absence at the opening. Both the Philippine Daily Inquirer and the Philippine Star reported that DU30 “skipped” the event. But The Manila Times failed to do so, reporting instead that DU30 “joined other world leaders…in witnessing the opening of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, China’s grand scheme to stimulate global growth and promote prosperity.” The Times report singled out DU30 and Putin among the heads of state present at the two-day conference.
There was no intelligent official explanation of DU30’s absence from the opening. The PDI story quoted the Department of Foreign Affairs as saying DU30 had to miss the opening because he had to prepare for the roundtable discussions with other leaders and for the bilaterals with Xi and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. That sounded a bit lame. DU30 had months to prepare for the meetings, which were the primary, if not the only, reasons for his coming to Beijing; if those who needed extra preparation for the roundtables had to skip the opening, perhaps many others would have stayed in their rooms as well.
This was not a new problem for our team. The inability of responsible officials to put out a simple credible explanation of something that is completely explicable is something the President should never take with him on his international travels. It is a disservice to the President and the nation. This tends to create unnecessary and unjustified speculations that he is not well. There is no lack of rumors, but there should be greater competence in handling what seems like a fairly simple situation. What possible harm could have been made if the traveling staff had simply admitted that after Phnom Penh and Hong Kong, DU30 needed a short rest before going into any serious high-level discussions? A more carefully nuanced statement would have shown that he was human after all.
Some non-DU30 supporters have suggested that the President decided not to grace the opening upon learning that, unlike Putin and Erdogan, he had no speaking part in it at all. This suggestion appears plausible but is not entirely credible. Why not? Because Xi would surely have allowed DU30 to speak if he had indicated a desire for it. Proof of this is that even former Speaker Jose de Venecia, whom DU30 had named “special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue” only last week, was able to find a speaking part for himself in one of the plenary sessions, according to reports.
The De Venecia proposal
JDV was reported to have proposed a joint exploratory agreement in the South China Sea among the Philippines, China and Vietnam, apparently patterned after, or at least inspired by, the tripartite agreement for joint seismic undertaking within an area of 143,000 square kilometers in the South China Sea which he had earlier brokered among the national oil companies of the three countries in 2005. This involved China National Offshore Oil Corp. (CNOOC), Vietnam Oil and Gas Corp. (Petro Vietnam) and Philippine National Oil Corp. (PNOC), and promised to become a landmark achievement of the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo administration.
But it lapsed after three years, as Chinese-Philippine relations soured because of the $329.5 million NBN-ZTE broadband scandal, and relations between China and Vietnam became confrontational because of maritime incidents in disputed waters. The problem began in April 2007, when Transportation and Communication Secretary Leandro Mendoza, on behalf of the Philippine National Broadband Network (NBN), and the vice president of the Chinese telecommunication company ZTE, Yu Yong, signed a contract in Hainan, under which ZTE would set up a national broadband network for the government for $329.5 million.
Charges of overprice and “kickbacks” were instantly raised against the President’s husband, otherwise known as the “First Gentleman,” and the chairman of the Commission on Elections, who allegedly got involved in the transaction. The Senate investigated the allegations, and De Venecia’s son, Jose “Joey” de Venecia 3rd, president of the losing bidder, Amsterdam Holdings, told the investigators he was with the Comelec chair when the latter demanded money from the Chinese. The accused denied the allegation. Several petitions questioned the constitutionality of the contract before the Supreme Court; a temporary restraining order was also enjoined.
The call for Arroyo’s resignation began to grow. In Congress, Sen. Alan Peter Cayetano and Senate President Manuel Villar called on Arroyo to take a leave of absence. Others called for her outright resignation. An impeachment complaint was filed against her but failed to prosper. Led by the late former president Cory Aquino, the anti-Arroyo group tried to influence the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to demand Arroyo’s resignation, but the bishops declined.
On October 1, 2007, the Comelec chair finally resigned. On October 2, while Arroyo was in Shanghai for the Special Olympics World Summer Games, she cancelled the NBN-ZTE contract, and painfully told Chinese President Hu Jintao of the decision herself. On February 5, 2008, 174 members of the House voted to remove Speaker De Venecia, Arrroyo’s strongest supporter in Congress, for loss of confidence, and replaced him with Davao Rep. Prospero Nograles. On February 29, 2008, Cory Aquino and former President Erap Estrada led a rally at the financial district of Makati calling for Arroyo’s resignation, but drew a thin crowd.
Relations between the Philippines and China progressively declined under Arroyo’s successor, B.S.Aquino 3rd, who adopted a combative attitude toward China despite a successful state visit in 2011, when he toured the village of Hongjian in Xiamen, Fujian, the ancestral seat of the Cojuangco family which his late mother (Corazon Cojuangco Aquino) first visited in 1988. It was during his term that cooperation with China in the South China Sea substantially evaporated, and the Philippines filed for arbitration of its maritime dispute with China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague.
The Philippines won this case, but DU30 decided not to invoke the arbitral ruling against China, which has refused to recognize the process. Instead, DU30 has opted to broaden bilateral economic and military ties as evidenced by the numerous agreements signed during his state visit last October and this visit. De Venecia’s proposal appears to be an individual initiative to support the bilateral rather than multilateral approach to the South China Sea issue, although a third party (Vietnam) is included.
China and Vietnam
In the case of Vietnam, while the tripartite seismic agreement was in place, it entered into an additional agreement with China which provided for twice yearly meetings at the level of heads of government and a hotline mechanism to handle time-sensitive issues. But this was quickly undermined by recurring minor incidents.
In May 2011, Vietnam claimed Chinese boats deliberately rammed and cut a submerged cable towed by a ship for Petro Vietnam, within Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ), according to Hanoi, but disputed by Beijing. China accused Vietnam of “invasive activities that undermined its interests and jurisdictional rights.” And armed confrontation ensued. Vietnam held six to nine hours of live fire-drills in the South China Sea after this incident.
It is against this background that De Venecia aired his proposal for a new tripartite agreement among China, Vietnam and the Philippines at the One Belt, One Road conference. It was a great opportunity for hyperbole, and I have no doubt that JDV made full use of it. What is not clear is whether or not the proponent, who has been in his yet-to-be-defined office for barely a week, had the chance to clear his proposal with the President, or the Department of Foreign Affairs, which is in transition from an acting Foreign Secretary to a yet to be confirmed Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
Assuming the government has adopted the idea, and decided to propose it to the parties concerned, or float it as a balloon in an international conference, my impression is that somebody from the Foreign Office should have done it rather than the newly minted special envoy for inter-cultural dialogue. Ideally, the idea should have been vetted and critiqued within some government planning body, given its previous incarnation, before it was aired in such a high-profile international conference.
Where JDV is involved, it cannot be unwise to be a little more careful, even a little extra careful. The only Filipino politician who became Speaker of the House five times, he is such a charmer that if a total stranger takes an elevator ride alone with him, as somebody once put it, by the time they get to the 12th floor, the stranger would be feeling he had always known JDV for the last 2,000 years. He is a great peacemaker, and there is not a dispute anywhere in the world he does not want to settle. Be it Sabah, Syria, Afghanistan, the Spratlys or the Senkaku Islands.
Given the quarrelsome nature of this administration, JDV, not Cayetano, should be the Secretary of Foreign Affairs. I was about to say, President. But I checked myself, didn’t I?
JDV is a man of ideas, as witness his tripartite proposal; the only trouble is that his big ideas cannot always keep up with his hyperbole. I have always thought he might have won the presidency when Erap Estrada did in 1998—although Miriam and I ran against them too—if only he knew the right time and the right place for the right words, and if only he could dispose of any public issue or answer the guy who asks him for the time on his wrist watch, within 60 seconds or less.