Thanks to University of the Philippines law professor Jay Batongbacal, the Filipino nation is finally awakening to the great importance and far-reaching implications of President Duterte’s visit to China next week and the pivot of Philippine foreign policy to China.
The professor, who is also director of the UP Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, warned last week that our government is methodically eliminating all means of leverage with which the Philippines could secure its interests against “its larger, more powerful neighbor.”
Elaborating, he said: “President Duterte is taking a huge risk, betting all on China’s goodwill and beneficence without the insurance provided by the diversified, multi-lateral support of historical and traditional friends and allies.
“Over the long term, China unmistakably stands to gain much, while the Philippines’ fate remains uncertain.”
Batongbacal issued the statement after learning that Duterte canceled the China trip of former President Fidel Ramos after Ramos advised DU30 not to push through with the trip to China if they would not comply with certain conditions.
Instead of heeding Ramos’ advice, Duterte canceled Ramos’ China trip and personally took control of talks with Chinese officials without even consulting or informing the concerned Philippine counterparts.
BS Aquino is missed
When the terms and conditions for Duterte’s visit fully come to light next week, the nation will look wistfully at President Benigno B.S. Aquino 3rd’s foreign policy toward China and the South China Sea. Aquino made a lot of sense on two key moves he made.
First, he warned that China’s moves in the South China Sea increasingly resembled Adolf Hitler’s moves on Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia, which in the event precipitated the outbreak of World War II.
Second, he gave the green light to the filing by our Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) of a case against China before the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. The case that produced a landmark decision casts an uncomfortable background for the coming talks between President Duterte and President Xi Jin-Ping.
I wrote in a column last June that the arbitral award is “the ace in the hole” which we will carry to any negotiations with China on the disputed waters. But the big question now is whether China will even allow Duterte to mention the decision during his visit.
Zipping the President’s lip never worked with Aquino; he just kept on talking, sometimes raising the most outrageous things against the government in Beijing.
He declared that China’s leadership is reminiscent of Hitler and his Nazi regime. This is oddly apposite to Duterte’s recent quip that he might act like Hitler in the country’s ongoing war on drugs, by eliminating some 3.7 million drug suspects.
A page from Chamberlain and Munich
The really unsettling allusion to history is the growing realization that Duterte’s visit to China increasingly resembles British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in October 1938 and the signing of the infamous Munich Agreement.
The Munich Agreement was a settlement permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of portions of Czechoslovakia along the country’s borders mainly inhabited by German speakers, for which a new territorial designation “Sudetenland” was coined.
The agreement was signed on Sept. 30 1938 (but dated Sept. 29) after being negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany among Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Sudetenland was of immense strategic importance to Czechoslovakia, as most of its border defenses, and banks were situated there, as well as heavy industrial districts.
Czechoslovakia was informed by Britain and France that it could either resist Nazi Germany alone or submit to the prescribed annexations. The Czechoslovak government, realizing the hopelessness of fighting the Nazis alone, reluctantly capitulated and agreed to abide by the agreement.
On Sept. 30 after some rest, Chamberlain went to Hitler and asked him to sign a peace treaty between the United Kingdom and Germany, to which Adolf happily agreed.
On his return to Britain, Chamberlain delivered his infamous “peace for our time” speech to crowds in London. And war broke out within days.
Duterte would be lucky if he could return to Manila with a better deal than Chamberlain got, or more opportunity to speak his mind in Beijing.
China has already said that it will never negotiate with the Philippines on the basis of the arbitration award of the Hague arbitration tribunal, which favored the Philippines on all points at issue and declared China’s claim to the South China Sea as illegal.
For China, nothing is negotiable on the basis of the arbitration award, but everything is negotiable if it is discarded.
Duterte sounds hollow when he publicly insists at home that he will negotiate with China on the basis of the Arbitral ruling and within the international law. Recent developments on our foreign policy front indicate that the Philippines already concedes that the arbitral decision is just “paper.”
“By alienating allies like the United States and Australia; by refusing to push through with basic surveillance of the West Philippine Sea, by discarding an Asean role; declaring that the Philippines cannot defend its territorial/jurisdictional areas; by even exhorting the public to “not dwell” on Scarborough Shoal,” we appear to have hoisted the flag of appeasement before talks can even begin.
A transactional exercise
Duterte is turning any talks or negotiations with China into a transactional exercise. He is betting and hoping that China will reciprocate his abandonment of the previous Administration’s strategy and his pivot away from the US, by giving him both money and respect. He hopes to secure a concession for Philippine fishing at Scarborough, major Chinese investments in a Philippine railway system, and energy projects.
If none of these materializes, our proud President will lose face before his countrymen and the international community. He will stand weakened by his audacious foreign policy adventurism.
Zero-sum vs win-win diplomacy
It would be satisfactory if DU30 could report to the nation a win-win outcome in his visit to China – an outcome wherein both countries derive benefits from any agreement or understanding reached.
But some of us, including this writer, fear that Filipino-Chinese relations have become a “zero-sum game.”
A “zero-sum” game or relationship means a situation wherein a gain for one side entails a corresponding loss for the other side.
If Filipino statecraft is not up to the challenge, if our foreign policy persists in revolving around DU30’s instincts and whims, we could wind up losing our entire political leverage in the South China Sea and our standing and influence in the Asia-Pacific.
China is playing a zero-sum game against us. We have to insist on seeking a win-win outcome. A win-win or positive-sum outcome means everyone wins, usually through cooperation and joint problem solving.
These terms originated in game theory, which comes from the field of mathematics.
Serious statecraft knows how to play the game competently in its country’s national interest.