WHILE disappointed and angry friends wanted me to explain why I failed, in my last column (“DU30 should rethink his foreign policy now,” The Manila Times, February 21, 2018), to list down China’s most grievous “sins” against the Philippines and the Filipino people as reasons why President Rodrigo Duterte should abandon his “pivot to China” now, the latest “Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community” appears to have placed PDU30 at the center of global scrutiny as an alleged threat to the democratic legal and political order.
Limited space did not allow me to make a full presentation of the large grievances that have developed against China since DU30 arguably exchanged national sovereignty and territorial integrity for Chinese loans, military aid, political comfort and perhaps personal health care; I had intended to focus on these in this column, until the US security report appeared online. This, to me, demanded some reprioritization.
The threat assessment does not say very much. In fact, it says nothing that has not been said before, and in much stronger terms. “In the Philippines, President Duterte will continue to wage his signature campaign against drugs, corruption and crime…Duterte has suggested he could suspend the Constitution, declare a ‘revolutionary government,’ and impose nationwide martial law,” the assessment said. This is rather bland.
Who’s saying what?
Many have written much stronger and more colorful indictments. The assessment also does not single out DU30 alone, but puts him in the company of Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, the Thai military junta, and those responsible for the Rohingya ethnic crisis in Myanmar, among others. But so much more important than what is being said about DU30 is, who is/who are saying it? It is the entire US intelligence community, not just the CIA saying it—16 government agencies that work separately and together to conduct intelligence to support US foreign policy and national security objectives.
It is this same community that has insisted that Russian cyber operatives had interfered in the last US presidential elections to favor the Republican presidential candidate, and that the whole operation should be exposed. We are now witnessing the relevant US official investigation as it unfolds. Arguably, the same intelligence community played a critical role in the Philippines in 1986 when the US State Department and the Pentagon, despite the hands-off policy of President Ronald Reagan, decided to support the civilian-assisted military coup against Ferdinand Marcos.
This should put DU30 on notice. It is not something he can shoo away by raining expletives, as he is wont to do, upon US National Intelligence Director Daniel Coats, who released the unclassified document. He would be well-advised to show prudence. Presidential spokesman Harry Roque is smart enough to recognize this point; at least he admits Malacañang is taking the assessment “very seriously.”
A warning shot?
For all we know, it could just be a “shot across the bow” —a “warning shot,” according to DU30’s declared nemesis, Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th. But it does send a loud signal which interested parties could easily exploit. These include those who are particularly anxious about DU30’s excessive fawning upon China, which has resulted in the presumed loss of “Philippine territory” to its island-building on, and reported militarization of, the seven reefs in the Spratlys, some of which lie incontestably within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Some angry readers have claimed that tens of thousands of Chinese individuals are now in the country, not as tourists, but as “workers,” apparently pursuant to China’s alleged method of executing its foreign projects: they bring in their own workers, instead of allowing the recipient government to generate local employment among its unemployed. In Africa, according to one African diplomat, Chinese workers in “leg irons” do Chinese projects in highly indebted poor countries.
This is not to say that the Philippine arrivals are anything like these. But those who claim to have seen the arrivals remind themselves of the Japanese visitors who had poured into the country before the Pacific war and hired themselves as gardeners and handymen, etc. in Baguio, Davao, and other places, only to manifest themselves as officers of the Japanese imperial army once the invasion broke out.
Is an invasion thinkable?
The possibility of a Chinese invasion taking place against this Chinese-dominated economy strikes me as one large conspiracy theory. But it is now carefully mooted in certain circles, after it became clear that China, in partnership with a local ethnic Chinese tycoon, now controls the National Grid Corp. of the Philippines, which controls the supply and demand of electric power across the country; and that it is poised to create through Huawei, the global information and communications technology solutions provider, a “facial recognition” national surveillance system for Filipinos; and through China Telecom, it is to become the third player in the telecommunications industry, after Globe and Smart, the two competing giants.
It appears that the allegations of extrajudicial killings in DU30’s murderous drug war, which are set to come under “examination” anytime soon by the International Criminal Court Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, have branched out into other issues, which DU30 may or may not have anticipated. The threat assessment cites a Freedom House report on the DU30 government’s extensive use of social media to spread political propaganda—what its critics call “fake news,” shape public perceptions and discredit critics online. The report calls out many other governments and politicians on this particular issue, but DU30 alone appears to have given eloquent proof against himself on this score.
How fake is fake news?
At a Senate hearing last week, which had been called to shed light on published allegations that Special Assistant to the President Christopher “Bong” Go had tried to intervene in the acquisition of two South Korean frigates worth P15.7 billion, DU30’s factotum simply brushed aside the allegations by accusing Rappler, the online news platform, and Philippine Daily Inquirer, which had tried to document Go’s involvement, of spreading “fake news.” There was no effort to demonstrate how the press reports assumed the character of fake news; enough that Go said it, and nearly the entire Cabinet, led by Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano no less, was present to support Go.
After that, Go did not have to answer any stressful question from any senator. Neither did the press take a critical look at the curious proceedings. What seems clear is that the allegations about Go’s questionable involvement in the proposed acquisition of two frigates from South Korea have not been successfully refuted. The authenticity of at least three documents exchanged between Malacañang, the Department of National Defense and the Philippine Navy, and showing such involvement, was never impeached, after it had been attested to by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Undersecretary Lloyd Christopher Lao, who works in Go’s office.
The frigates scandal
For a brief background, the DND opened the bidding process on the acquisition of two modern warships in October 2013, during the Aquino administration. In March 2016, Garden Reach Shipbuilders and Engineers (GRSE) of India was identified as the lowest bidder. In June 2016, the DND announced that GRSE was “post-disqualified,” leaving Heavy Hyundai Industries (HHI), the second lowest bidder, as the only other qualified bidder.
In October 2016, Lorenzana signed the award to HHI.
On January 4, 2017, PN Chief Vice Admiral Ronald Mercado questioned a fine print in the HHI contract, saying HHI has “the sole right” to decide who will make the subsystems to be installed on the ship.
On January 12, 2017, Lorenzana received a communication, contained in a single sheet of white paper, endorsing the Combat Management System chosen by HHI. Lorenzana forwarded it to Mercado with a “Post-it” note, saying it came from Bong Go, and instructing Mercado to rebut the endorsement.
On January 18, 2017, Undersecretary Lao wrote the Navy officer in charge of the frigates project, asking for a January 20 meeting in Malacañang to discuss the selection of the CMS.
On January 23, 2017, Empedrad submitted to PDU30 and Bong Go a written report explaining the selection of the CMS.
On March 1, 2017, Mercado wrote the Defense Acquisition Office chief, Col. Leodegario de la Paz (ret.), to say that the Navy cannot possibly endorse HHI’s CMS choice.
On November 3, 2017, Defense Undersecretary Cardozo Luna ordered Mercado to refrain from making any further comment on the CMS issue. Mercado confirmed receipt of the order on November 6, 2017.
On December 19, 2017, Mercado was ousted for alleged insubordination, replaced by Rear Admiral Robert Empedrad, who is now expected to implement the project.
On December 22, 2017 in South Korea, the Supreme Court affirmed a 2013 ruling against HHI, finding it guilty of corruption and banning it from participating in government projects for the next few years.
Such is Bong Go’s apparent power that following the Senate fiasco, Rappler reporter Pia Ranada was banned not only from covering DU30 but even from entering the gates of Malacañang. The apparent basis of this is an inchoate decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke the license of Rappler for its alleged violation of the 100-percent Filipino ownership of media as required by the Constitution.
That decision, however, is not yet final and executory. Therefore, the ban against reporter Ranada is clearly unconstitutional and converts the Palace of the Filipino people into somebody’s private property.
Not even during Martial Law, when the press was momentarily shut down, did Malacañang ban any local or foreign journalist who wanted to see Marcos or visit the Palace grounds. What is utterly distressing is that Ranada’s supposed offense was not even against DU30 himself, but merely against his ubiquitous special assistant. This is hard to explain. Until this incident, I was under the impression that Cabinet Secretary Leoncio Evasco Jr., who runs the operations of the Office of the President, was the most powerful man in Malacañang, next only to the former mayor of Davao. How dreadfully wrong I have been!
Bong Go is the first person DU30 sees when he wakes up before midday each day, the last person he sees before he goes to bed at dawn, and the only person who is never out of his sight during his waking hours. DU30 has told us GO is a “billionaire” without telling us how he became one, but I never imagined DU30 would give him the power to inflict upon the press an injury he is not even prepared to inflict upon it himself.