A friend from India wrote me and offered this potentially helpful comment:
“I wonder if Duterte is becoming progressively blinded by his popularity rating; or if he is suffering from a medical condition. A doctor practicing Ayurveda – the Indian medical science which is the world’s oldest – tells me that Duterte’s lack of control over his tongue is, indeed, a medical problem that can be treated if he is only willing.”
I found his note most interesting, so I wrote back to say that I will pass on his medical diagnosis to some people in Malacanang. But I said that we should probably wait until Mr. Duterte returns home from his visit to Beijing, for a very sound reason.
Based on reports, China is known to successfully muzzle state guests on unwanted subjects and to cure their penchant to talk loosely.
Beijing’s strict control of official conversations has been much pronounced in China’s dealings with top American officials. To which presumably Washington accedes.
New rule for South China Sea talks
In an intriguing article last July, the Washington Post reported that US national security adviser Susan Rice went to Beijing for discussions about the South China Sea, and China’s deepening territorial dispute with Washington‘s most important Southeast Asian allies.
But strangely, Ms. Rice did not talk about the South China Sea — at least not publicly – during her visit.
Emily Rauhala wryly entitled her report: “The first new rule for South China Sea talks: Don’t talk about the South China Sea.”
The substantive part of the Post report said: “The diplomatic sidestep was a clear sign of just how sensitive the standoff has become. For Beijing’s leaders, control of the South China Sea is a critical show of resolve. For the United States and its Asian allies, it marks a test of how much they can push back against China’s growing military and regional ambitions.
“In the highest-level US visit since an international tribunal issued a ruling on July 12, invalidating China’s expansive maritime claims, Rice met with President Xi Jinping, State Councilor Yang Jiechi and other senior officials. She alluded to “issues and challenges” but avoided actual references to the long-simmering conflict.
“In her opening remarks before her talk with Xi, Rice played up interdependence and called the US-China relationship “the most consequential in the world today.”
“Xi in turn told Rice that China remains “strongly committed” to building good relations based upon the ideas of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation.”
The most pointed — if indirect — reference to the dispute during the Rice visit came in an earlier meeting between Rice and Fan Changlong, a top Chinese general.
“We should be honest with ourselves that deep down in this relationship we’re still faced with obstacles and challenges,” Fan told Rice.
`“If we do not properly handle these factors, it will very likely disturb and undermine this steady momentum of our military-to-military relationship,” he said.
Bullying Asean into silence
China has also muzzled opinion on the arbitral ruling in the councils of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
During Secretary of State John F. Kerry’s trip to Laos, where he met with Southeast Asian leaders and China’s foreign minister to begin delicate discussions about how to move forward after the Hague ruling, the Asean issued an innocuous statement that carefully avoided mention of the ruling.
Why is China so sensitive about the subject?
First, the Permanent Court of Arbitration, based in The Hague, ruled that there is no legal or historical basis for China’s claims to a vast swath of the South China Sea.
Second, the tribunal also ruled that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights by constructing artificial islands and had caused “permanent irreparable harm to the coral reef ecosystem.”
The US has tried to find a way to support its Southeast Asian allies, particularly the Philippines, without completely alienating Beijing.
“It is trying to calm things down while at the same time encouraging support for the arbitration ruling,” says Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.
The Chinese response to the ruling has so far been a mix of scathing rhetoric and mostly symbolic moves, such as sending civilian aircraft to new airports in the South China Sea.
On the sidelines of the recent Asean summit, China reportedly told the Philippines that Beijing was ready to negotiate if Manila ignored the ruling, an offer which the Philippine foreign minister roundly rejected.
No bartering away of PH territory
It is in this context that President Duterte will visit China, starting today.
Speculation has been rife in the media that Beijing has exacted unconscionable concessions from Manila for the visit to take place, and that our government has framed its conditions in terms of pieces of silver.
One analyst has suggested that our government has frittered away all our leverage in negotiations on the South China Sea and has turned the talks into a transactional exercise. I have opined in an earlier column that the Duterte visit resembles Neville Chamberlain’s visit to Munich in 1938: a journey of appeasement. Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio has warned that Mr. Duterte could face impeachment if he “concedes Philippine sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal to China.”
In defense, President Duterte vowed on Sunday he will not “barter” away territory and economic rights during his visit to Beijing.
Far from being silenced on the subject, DU30 said he would raise the arbitral ruling with President Xi Jinping.
“The international tribunal’s decision will be taken up, but there will be no hard impositions,” he said.
Significantly, the President also said he agreed with Justice Carpio’s opinion that he could be impeached and removed from office if he gave away Scarborough Shoal.
“He is correct,” he said. “It’s an impeachable offense.”
Ultra-sensitive about the drug war
This is a change of tone and diction in Mr. Duterte that we rarely see. In the face of criticism, this time he did not burst into expletives and has not called his critics names; he seems more willing to concede that he could be wrong.
But one should note that Du30’s foulest outbursts have usually been triggered by criticisms of his war on drugs, especially by charges of human rights violations.
If China is ultra-sensitive about the arbitral ruling, Duterte is ultra-sensitive about his drug war.
With the drug war still very much with us and UN officials visiting soon, it may be prudent for DU30 to discreetly undergo treatment by Ayurvedic medicine for his foul mouth.