WHETHER we support President-elect Rodrigo Duterte or not, we must wish him well in his bid to find a just solution to our outstanding internal and external concerns. We would be kidding ourselves if we thought for a while that just because a “highly popular” President is in charge, it’s going to be a walk in the park.
Despite the apparent readiness of the Communist Party of the Philippines/New People’s Army/National Democratic Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front to resume talks with government; despite the fact that Mr. Duterte is from Mindanao, which is the seat of the MILF, and where the CPP/NPA/NDF appears to be strongest; and despite the fact that he is no stranger to both armed groups, forging a permanent peace with the Left and the MILF will not be as easy as many would like to think.
The problem with the Left
The reason why some people think it should come quick could be the very same reason why it might ultimately prove difficult. The fact that Mr. Duterte has decided to name four CPP/NPA/NDF nominees to the Cabinet, even before a peace agreement is forged with the Left, should logically make it easy for such a peace agreement to be forged, without much debate. But those appointments, preceding a peace settlement, could in fact provoke otherwise dormant forces on the Right to block an agreement, and, perforce, cancel those proposed appointments.
The reaction from the Right is building up slowly, but it is building up.
The problem with the MILF
With respect to the Moro insurgents, Mr. Duterte’s expression of support for the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, after it had been subjected to an unfinished amendatory process in the Senate, may have revived hopes in the proposed legislation creating a new political entity for the MILF, to replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao under the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). But Congress is in charge of this process.
And not only Congress, but also the Supreme Court. The Philippine Constitution Association, and some other petitioners, including this writer, have asked the Court to declare as unconstitutional the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB) and the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB), of which the proposed BBL is but an implementing mechanism. The FAB and the CAB are updated versions of the Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain (MOA-AD), which the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo government signed with the MILF in 2008, but which the Court struck down as void.
The FAB/CAB issue
Many are confident that just as the Court has voided the MOA-AD, it will have to void the FAB and the CAB, which contain the constitutional infirmities of the MOA-AD. If this happens, then the proposed BBL will have no constitutional leg to stand on and will have to be jettisoned. If the proposed BBL resurfaces at all, it can only take the form that Sen. Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos, Jr. had sought to present to the Senate, after conducting extensive consultations with various stakeholders in Mindanao, and after purging the bill of its constitutional infirmities. However, the MILF insists on the original bill, not the revised version.
No Muslim in Cabinet
Because of this, a peace agreement with the MILF will be hard to achieve. Aside from the constitutional and legal problems, the Muslim political community is reported to resent the fact that not a single Muslim of political consequence has been offered a Cabinet post, despite the fact that most of Duterte’s proposed Cabinet appointees are from Mindanao, and the CPP/NPA/NDF has been offered four big Cabinet positions, apart from the post of Cabinet secretary and several undersecretaryships. This grievance is widely shared among responsible Muslim personalities.
The attendant difficulties in trying to end the conflicts with the CPP/NPA/NDF and with the MILF, however, pale in comparison to those related to its maritime dispute with China on Kalayaan (the Spratlys). This dispute is framed within the struggle for “sphere of influence” between China and the US, which under Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy has decided to deploy 60 percent of all its naval assets to the Asia Pacific. China, although reputedly behind the US in military technology, is determined not to be forced out of its own turf. Either side could miscalculate, and this could set off a major regional, if not wider, armed conflict.
Reasons for tension
For various reasons, tension in the area has ratcheted up during B.S. Aquino 3rd’s six years. First of all, some Philippine Cabinet officials irresponsibly boasted that the country would serve as the “frontline state” in containing China’s rise as an Asia Pacific power.
Beijing responded by reclaiming certain disputed islets or islands. Malacañang then decided to bring the case to the UN Permanent Arbitration Council, at The Hague, instead of conducting bilateral dialogue with Beijing. Then B.S. Aquino entered into an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the US, without the participation of the Philippine Senate; this has succeeded in projecting the entire country as one large US military base.
The initial statements from the incoming government seem to offer a chance for bilateral talks. This is consistent with Duterte’s statement during the presidential debates that he would be ready to sail a small boat to one of the Chinese-reclaimed islands and personally deliver the UN arbitral council’s judgment, if it were in favor of the Philippines. Then he would talk to the Chinese.
History of exclusion
Bilateral negotiations would have the effect of excluding foreign parties from the talks.
This would be contrary to our historical experience. We have never excluded foreigners; it was habitually the foreigners who had us excluded. We declared our independence from Spain on June 12, 1898; the Malolos Congress convened on Nov. 29, 1898; and Emilio Aguinaldo proclaimed the Constitution of the First Philippine Republic on Jan. 21, 1899.
But foreign powers drew up our territorial boundaries as a nation-state without our participation, after we had proudly proclaimed our independence. First, in the Treaty of Paris between Spain and the US on Dec. 10, 1898; then, in the US-Spanish treaty in Washington on Nov. 7, 1900; and, finally, in the Washington treaty between the US and Britain on Jan. 2, 1930.
In keeping with honored practice, Malaysia, the respondent in our territorial claim to Sabah, has become the principal facilitator in the government effort to create an autonomous political entity for the MILF, supported by a sprawl of NGOs from the US, Europe and the United Nations, all interested in deciding things for the Philippines.
So Duterte’s desire to dialogue with China, despite the arbitration process at the UN, is a deviation that the proponents of a strictly multilateral approach to the issue may want to resist to the very end. It is not exactly a U-turn, but a modification, which introduces a two-track approach—multilateral and bilateral at the same time.
Luck and skills
China has welcomed this development and many Filipinos would like to give it a chance. But this is certain to create problems for the new government. This is where it will need the best of luck and the best of skills.
On the eve of the 41st anniversary of the June 9, 1975 opening of diplomatic relations between China and the Philippines, an all-Filipino panel examined the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the maritime dispute between the two neighbors. I was invited as a public commentator, a lifelong student of diplomacy and international relations, and the information secretary during that historic occasion.
The opening of relations with Beijing, together with the opening of relations with Moscow a year later, was one of the most far-seeing decisions of the Marcos years. It preceded by at least four years of the US decision to normalize relations with Beijing, even though President Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 and, together with Henry Kissinger, signed the historic Shanghai Communiqué with Premier Zhou Enlai.
Such was the warmth of Philippine-Chinese friendship shown at the highest level during that visit that even though Marcos never touched alcohol during official toasts, he was finally compelled to take mao tai (the Chinese wine) after Zhou or Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping quoted to him the Chinese proverb—“Between two enemies, a small drop of wine is too much, but between two friends, nothing is enough.” Marcos drank so many toasts that in the end he had to plead, “Your hospitality far exceeds our capacity.”
In our forum on Wednesday, I pointed out that in our search for a mutually acceptable solution to our maritime dispute, we must take note that this dispute was already there when we decided to exchange diplomatic recognition. It did not present an obstacle to Marcos’s adoption of the “One-China Policy,” which entailed giving up our long historic diplomatic relationship with Taiwan. In fact, it enabled Marcos to ask Beijing to stop providing logistical support to the CPP/NPA in the Philippines.
I called attention to the fact that very few territorial disputes are settled within one or two generations or more. India, as Prime Minister Modi recently said, has a longstanding border conflict with China, but even though they are not about to settle it, they aren’t poised to go to war over it, either.
I said, and this is what I want to underscore here, it is absolutely necessary for China and the Philippines to reaffirm the basic principles they agreed to in the Joint Communique, which Marcos signed with Zhou in Beijing. They contain, in my view, the key to the solution of our territorial problem.
These are the most important provisions:
“The two governments hold that the economic, political and social system of a country should be chosen only by the people of that country without outside interference.
“They maintain that the differences between the economic, political and social system of the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of the Philippines should not constitute an obstacle to peaceful coexistence and the establishment and development of peaceful and friendly relations between the two countries and peoples, in accordance with the principles of mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit.
“The two governments agree to settle all disputes by peaceful means on the basis of the above mentioned principles without resorting to the use or threat of force.
“The two governments agree that all foreign aggression and subversion and attempts by any country to control any other country or to interfere in its internal affairs are to be condemned. They are opposed to any attempt by any country or group of countries to establish hegemony or create spheres of influence in any part of the world.
“The two governments recognize and agree to respect each other’s territorial integrity.”
Take to heart all the key words and ideas in this document—“mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity; mutual non-aggression; non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; equality and mutual benefit; foreign aggression and subversion; attempts by any country to control any other country or to interfere in its internal affairs; hegemony or spheres of influence”—and you will have found a clear way of approaching the South China Sea maritime dispute.
The task of the Philippine government is to work out with China a mutually beneficial way of solving this dispute if we can, or of postponing its solution, if we must. It is not to arbitrate or to be drawn into the “sphere of influence” conflict between China and the United States.