How to pull Du30 from the Rubicon?

POSTSCRIPT - The Philippine Star

NEW YORK – When President Rodrigo Duterte stands at “the Rubicon” late this month, will he decide to take the nation with him and cross the river – then pivot to the left into the waiting arms of the Chinese?

It depends on whether Duterte’s “Rubicon” is for real or just an addition to the working vocabulary for his Oct. 20 official visit to Beijing to see what China can offer to assuage the shock of the Philippines’ cutting its “umbilical cord” to Mother America.

Our guess is that Duterte is not yet fully convinced that it is propitious to cross the Rubicon. We see him pausing and moving away to buy time. He can draw from his experience in managing this geopolitical ménage à trois among the US, China and the Philippines. <http://tinyurl.com/j6urfjn>

Crossing the Rubicon means making an irrevocable decision. The Roman armies were forbidden to cross that river to the city. Julius Caesar defied the prohibition when he returned from his European campaigns and led his legions across the river, triggering a war.

President Duterte has clarified that he is not about to sever relations with the US, an ally of long-standing. But his using “crossing the Rubicon” implying a possible irreversible decision should not to be taken lightly by Washington.

He hints at cutting the Philippines’ “umbilical cord” to the US, but that lifeline has long been cut. The problem is that the child, after its birth seven decades ago, is unable to mature as corrupt and incompetent officials take turns pretending to take care of him.

The coming top-level Beijing talks, as described by Duterte, are likely to follow this 1-2-3 pattern if pressure is absent:

1. Duterte presents to his Chinese counterpart his bargaining list, enumerating his priority concerns and maximum demands. He will say exactly what he wants, with the details having been discussed in prior lower-level talks.

2. The Chinese side will respond with its own expectations and proposals, followed by an agreement on details that had been worked out in advance by subordinate officials.

3. After bargaining, the two sides will summarize the areas of agreement and leave unresolved items for future talks at lower level.

Duterte trip rises/falls on 2 items

AMONG the more contentious items that Duterte must tackle in Beijing are:

1. What to do with the July 12 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague that struck down China’s nine-dash line justification of its claiming most of the South China Sea, including areas belonging to the Philippines, the petitioner in the case.

The Philippine position in the Beijing talks is that all negotiations pertaining to disputed areas must follow that arbitral ruling based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which both countries have signed and ratified. China has refused to accept that decision.

2. With the UNCLOS arbitral court having rejected as contrary to law China’s forcible occupation and exclusive exploitation of Panatag (Scarborough) shoal, Beijing must restore the status quo ante 2012 and give back to Filipinos free access to that traditional fishing ground of theirs.

Panatag is just 120 nautical miles off the Zambales coast, well within the 200-nm Philippine Exclusive Economic Zone, and a distant 530 nm from Hainan, the nearest land mass of China.

Also, if only as a sign of good faith and adherence to international law, China should agree to dismantle installations built on artificial islands it had reclaimed in disputed areas within the Philippine EEZ. It should disavow any plan to reclaim or build on Panatag.

If President Duterte fails to gain Beijing’s acceptance of the twin items above on (1) Panatag access and the (2) UNCLOS ruling, he cannot claim to have succeeded in his mission to Beijing.

Duterte is excited about China’s promise to help lay out a railway network in Mindanao and put up rehabilitation centers nationwide for narcotics victims, whose arrest or surrender has been largely neglected for lack of proper rehab facilities.

The President has also shown interest in having Chinese investors in co-ventures for joint mineral exploration and/or exploitation and other businesses.

But the question lingers: What price is Duterte willing to pay – including the downgrading of US security relations – just to get China to promise increased trade, loans and investments?

US has no choice but to outbid China?

HOW TO KEEP Duterte from crossing the Rubicon during his October visit to Beijing and until a new leadership is installed in the White House and the Capitol after the US elections?

Given the personality of Duterte, we think even calibrated pressure on him is likely to backfire. After all, he has nothing to lose but his life, which he said he is ready to sacrifice. As for destabilization leading to his ouster, that takes time.

An option for the US is to compete and show Duterte that it has better terms and is ready to help with no strings attached. Putting it in broad terms, the US must outbid China. That may be difficult to do this year as the US, unlike China, is in the thick of an election campaign.

If a go-between is needed, we think the best emissary for American messages to Duterte is former President Fidel V. Ramos, the same personal envoy sent by him not long ago to break the ice in the bilaterals with China left in the freezer by the previous administration.

We dare say that Ramos, 88 (a lucky number to the Chinese), is acceptable to all three parties in the ménage à trois.

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ADVISORY: To access Postscript archives, go to www.manilamail.com (if necessary, copy/paste the url on your browser’s address bar). Follow us on Twitter as @FDPascual. Email feedback to [email protected]

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