The American geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan calls it Asia’s “cauldron.” Nations sitting within and around this cauldron have a duty to keep it from boiling. Cooperation, not belligerence or confrontation, should inform their relations with each other, given their competing national interests and territorial claims. Allies of the United States, China’s neighbors from the very beginning, know that their alliance rests on the US as the dominant Pacific and world military power; they should not undermine it, as the late Bavarian statesman Franz Josef Strauss (1915-88) used to say; neither should they seek to maintain it by taking an unduly aggressive stance against China as the secondary power. This is the specific case of the Philippines.
We renounce war as a matter of policy, and have no reason to go to war against any nation. Not even against the Federation of Malaysia, which incorporated Sabah into its federation, years after the Sultan of Sulu had ceded the territory to the Republic of the Philippines before the federation came into being. Yet in the last six years, President B.S. Aquino 3rd and his Foreign Secretary acted like they were ready to go to war everytime they spoke to, or about, Beijing. They made the proud boast, to the apparent embarrassment and discomfort of the US, that they would like the Philippines to become the “frontline state” in containing China’s rise to power.
Now, President Rodrigo Duterte would like to reverse the situation by publicly cursing US President Obama, recycling archival documents on the massacre of Muslim Filipinos in 1906 after the 1899-1902 Philippine-American war, and announcing plans to purchase military weapons from Beijing and Moscow. His professed quest for an “independent foreign policy,” in an interdependent world, is quixotic but not condemnable. It is part of every nation’s right to self-determination and mandated by the Constitution.
Can we keep the cauldron from boiling?
But can it be attained, or even attempted, without disturbing the existing balance of power, with all its intended and unintended consequences, foreseen and unforeseen? Will any attempt to disrupt the geostrategic political order keep the cauldron from boiling? We hope and pray it will, but does DU30 have the skills or the means to prevent the worst from happening? There is no sign that such skills and means are in place, or that he is fully aware he needs them. Since noonday of June 30, DU30 has been shooting from the hip—from the “lip,” says the London-based The Economist—without any discernible policy or program.
Thus, even the South China Morning Post has the courage to say that DU30’s foreign policy is “naive” and that his war on drugs has failed to hide his lack of competence in addressing the country’s crippling poverty. He cannot have an ambitious foreign policy without a basic understanding of diplomacy. Making sure that the South China Sea cauldron does not heat up should be a paramount objective. But it is not a game for amateurs.
The need for seasoned diplomats
It would be too ambitious to think of having a Pope Leo I, who persuaded Attila the Hun not to invade and sack Rome; a Talleyrand, who prevented the annihilation of France after the defeat of Napoleon; a Bismarck,who unified most of the German states into a powerful German empire; a Metternich, who signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau that sent Napoleon to exile and led the Austrian delegation at the Congress of Vienna that divided post-Napoleonic Europe among the major powers; a Benjamin Franklin, who convinced the French to join the American rebels against the British; a Baron Rio Bravo, who gained so much territory for Brazil from France and Argentina through his sheer negotiating skill; or even a Henry Kissinger, who negotiated the end of the Vietnam war.
But the government must at least have the basic skills. Unfortunately, all DU30 has is his own mouth, which he says is both his weakness and his strength. He’s also got a completely uninitiated Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr., whose most eloquent discourse with the State Department and his CSIS audience in Washington, D.C. recently was that the Philippines was no longer an American vassal state, the Filipinos were no longer William Howard Taft’s “little brown brothers,” and that no one should lecture his government on human rights. What vulgarity! No wonder The Economist (Sept. 10-16, 2016 issue) could not avoid running an article on DU30’s diplomatic gaffes, featuring his famous cursing of Obama, Pope Francis, the government of Singapore, the United Nations, and unnamed journalists who were getting themselves killed “for being sons of bitches.”
Criticisms from the West
To be sure, some Westerners have a peculiar addiction to lecturing others on human rights, even when they themselves violate even more fundamental rights. This is how the world of realpolitik behaves. In fact, United Nations bureaucrats tend to manufacture all sorts of “human rights,” particularly for women, in their effort to press the war against the unborn, whose right to life they wish to deny. But these critics are best answered by exposing their accusations as unfounded, false and invalid, without having to call them names.
I have some personal experience in this. In the mid-‘90s, when I was still in Senate, European politicians were quite agitated at Asia’s cold response to their complaints about alleged human rights abuses. These included unregulated childbearing, pollution and environmental degradation, etc. I was traveling with an Asean parliamentary delegation to the European Parliament, headed by the Speaker of the House from Thailand, with parliamentarians from Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam as members.
An encounter in Strasbourg and Bonn
In Strasbourg, France, the doctor-son of a former President of France, who was a Member of the European Parliament, welcomed me to his table with an unusual greeting, “So you are from the Philippines, where you have 60 million people and you still have large families.” I took my seat and gently corrected him. “I’m sorry, Doctor,” I said, “we are not 60 million but more than 70 million. But we no longer have large families. I am one of the few who have (at that time) five children.” (This number has grown to seven.)
He obviously did not expect this direct response. So he said, “That’s all right, I also have five children.” (A check with Wikipedia later showed he only had three.)
Then I continued. “You know, Doctor, before I left for Europe, I tried to brush up on my French so I could at least order my cafe noir at a bistro at Rive Gauche in French. But then I was told by a friend that in Paris today, you couldn’t get a decent cup of coffee unless you spoke Arabic.”
That hit the solar plexus. “C’est vrai, c’est vrai,” (it’s true, it’s true), he said. “The Arabs are everywhere, but many of them don’t care to speak French.”
“So the problem is yours rather than mine,” I said. “In my country, we still produce Filipinos, in your country, you only produce migrants.” He suddenly became the soul of friendliness. He asked me where I would be staying in Paris, and when I said playfully “at the Ritz,” he said next time I was in town, I should call him in advance so he could arrange for my billet, next to his apartment, which was the best address in Paris.
Double standards on human rights?
When our delegation reached Bonn, we were received by powerful-looking German parliamentarians who accused Asians of having double standards on human rights, and blamed us for environmental degradation and the loss of our forests. Neither our non-English-speaking chairman nor any member of the delegation wanted to respond, so I asked for leave to speak for the group.
I thanked our hosts for their warm welcome, and expressed our appreciation for the beauty of their forests, and the great rivers that ran through their cities—the Thames in London, the Seine in Paris, the Rhine from the Swiss Alps to Cologne, Bonn and other German cities, the Danube in Vienna, Budapest, etc. I said we would like to replicate what they had done, as soon as we had the resources. But I disabused them of any belief that in Asia we had double standards on human rights.
“We do not have any double-standards,” I said. “In fact, we sometimes wonder whether such double standards are not to be found in the richer countries. For instance, you accuse some African tribes of practicing ‘genital mutilation,’ which is a tribal custom, while you freely legislate ‘fetal mutilation’ of the unborn.”
The phrase “fetal mutilation” dropped like a bomb, and transformed our arrogant hosts into the most welcoming and solicitous crowd. They suddenly wanted to know how they could make our visit more productive and enjoyable.
What DU30 can and should do
Since DU30 has been accused of ordering the killing of 3,000 drug suspects as of the latest count, without any visible due process, he should show his accusers that their accusations have no basis whatsoever. He has to show them they are completely wrong, not that they are as bad as, if not worse than, the man they are accusing. Calling Obama “son of a whore,” saying “f***k you” to the UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, and giving the “middle finger” to the European Union will simply pull DU30 down the gutter, without helping anyone to see the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about the killings.
He cannot bank on his alleged popularity. That is at best a bubble. Although DU30 had won 38 percent of all the votes last May, this was a full 13 percent short of the simple majority vote of 51 percent needed to make a majority President. He is a minority President. And although the usual propaganda fraudsters had tried to con him and the nation into believing that he has a 91 percent “trust rating,” there is no guarantee the people will follow him when he turns against the US because the colonial troops had massacred Filipino Muslims in Mindanao in 1906.
More Filipinos than Israelis like the US
According to a 2014 survey by the highly respected Pew Research Center, a non-partisan, non-advocacy US think tank, 92 percent of Filipinos support friendly ties with the US, as against 84 percent of the Israelis, 66 percent of the Japanese, and 50 percent of the Chinese. This is probably because most Filipinos, regardless of their partisan politics, consider the US their “cultural homeland,” where 2 to 3 million of their countrymen now work and live.
Likewise, were DU30 to turn his wrath openly against China, because of our territorial dispute, or for any reason whatsoever, our people may not be able to follow his lead. This is because they have lived and worked with the Chinese and Chinese Filipinos for hundreds of years. Even without its One Belt, One Road project, Chinese Filipinos are already in control of virtually all major sectors of the nation’s economy and even some important levers of political power.
Forging a common destiny
DU30 is wrong, as Aquino was wrong, to try to play the US against China and expect the people to follow their lead. It appears that, regardless of the geopolitical games our politicians play, our people are more pragmatic and sensible than their leaders—they dream of peace and progress, and would like to see a healthy power balance rather than war or conflict between China and the US in the Asia Pacific. And they would like to see DU30 play a more constructive role in making sure that our biggest neighbor by the accident of geography and our strongest ally by historical necessity work together to forge a common human destiny.