End of China appeasement? Watch Duterte actions – experts
GOTCHA - Jarius Bondoc (The Philippine Star) - September 25, 2020 - 12:00am

Rody Duterte’s newfound toughness against China’s sea incursions drew varied reactions. Doubters suspect he’ll revert to appeasing Asia’s big bully after that video-speech Tuesday at the UN General Assembly. He has flip-flopped on the China issue before.

But others expect officialdom from hereon to enforce the President’s fresh stand. That is, to “firmly reject attempts to undermine” Manila’s 2016 arbitral victory over China. Aside from hardnosed diplomacy, that entails economic and military re-strategizing.

Duterte had hinged his administration’s initiatives on what China could offer. Thus, his policy of appeasing Beijing. The Hague court had outlawed China’s grab of Philippine reefs. Instead of pursuing the next logical step of having the UN enforce the verdict, he shelved it.

That didn’t bear much fruit. Of $24 billion in loans and investments that Beijing promised Duterte, only $924 million materialized. With two years left in office, his centerpiece “Build, Build, Build” program of 82 infra-works might only have nine on stream. “He’s a politician, he needs accomplishments to show for it,” says geopolitics expert Renato de Castro.

Only China benefited from the appeasement, notes international maritime lawyer Jay Batongbacal. Duterte withdrew the Navy and Air Force from joint sea patrols with allies. Beijing took advantage by fortifying the seven Philippine reefs it illegally occupies. They now host missile silos, bomber and fighter airstrips, and naval bases.

The island-fortresses are used to aggress the Philippines. China coastguards machinegun and water-cannon Filipinos away from traditional fishing ground Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal. People’s Liberation Army-Navy combat choppers buzz Filipino sailors resupplying Marines in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. Chinese maritime militia swarm the waters of Pagasa island, Palawan, to disrupt Philippine military air and sea lifts.

Worst was a near bloodbath in February 2020, de Castro reminds. Unprovoked, a Chinese warship aimed and locked its gun controls on a Philippine patrol in Malampaya offshore oilfield, Palawan. Accidental fire could have sparked war. Filipino sailors seethed at how duplicitous their supposed Chinese friends were.

Meanwhile, Duterte risked isolation. While he froze Manila’s arbitral win, ASEAN allies Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam have expressed to the UN backing for The Hague verdict. So have the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom and Australia.

Now Duterte says “the award is beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” He also welcomes the growing support of other countries for Manila’s arbitral triumph.

So is Duterte’s appeasement of China over?

Wait-and-see is the stance of those who worked for the Philippine arbitral win. While praising Duterte for invoking the ruling, retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio and former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario cautiously watch his next moves.

“I fervently hope the Duterte administration will implement (the new policy) across all levels – in the protection of our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea, in the negotiations for the Code of Conduct and in gathering the support of the international community for enforcement of the arbitral award,” Carpio says.

Del Rosario suggests that “our President and his administration ... work earnestly to get the support of more countries so that the arbitral award will be raised more emphatically next year at the UN General Assembly 2021.”

Eagerly observed is the outcome of the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement, opines retired Army general Edilberto Adan. On Duterte’s order, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. filed last February a six-month Notice of Termination. Before last month’s deadline however, Duterte again told Locsin to delay the termination by six months. “Will the VFA be scrapped or resumed, as a crucial element of the 1952 PH-US Mutual Defense Treaty?” asks Adan who used to head its secretariat.

Philippine military equipment are puny compared to China’s. Restoring military exercises and joint patrols with the US and other allies is critical for Philippine defense of territorial waters and maritime jurisdictions. Those are deterrents to China’s sea expansionism. “Our government must know that the time to stop China is now,” says Adan.

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