What John Kerry is not saying

TO THE QUICK - Jerry Tundag (The Freeman) - July 29, 2016 - 12:00am

The main thing that emerged from the visit of US secretary of state John Kerry to the Philippines was his assurance that any bilateral talks the Philippines may have with China regarding their dispute in the South China Sea has the support of the United States. But it is what Kerry did not say that is most revealing. The unsaid portion is in fact so palpable one can almost hear Kerry sighing.

So what exactly did Kerry not say that gave him such an enormous sense of relief? Well, when Kerry said the US supports any bilateral talks between China and the Philippines, what Kerry really wanted to say without having to say it was that a huge burden has been lifted from the United States. With China and the Philippines talking, the US is no longer in imminent danger of having to prove its commitment to the Philippines in case hostilities break out between the two countries.

Bilateral talks between the Philippines and China buys the United States time to hold its presidential election free of any crisis. Any crisis that requires forcing the hand of the United States can be disastrous to the bid of the Democratic Party - Kerry's party - to keep its hold on power. Having failed Ukraine and cold-shouldered Israel, the prospect of the Philippines as the next real test of American friendship and commitment does not look very promising.

Long before swallowing hard to tell the Philippines it was virtually on its own to talk and chart its own destiny around the imposing Chinese dragon, the US already gave very clear signals regarding its real position. The problem was, the Philippines either did not see the signals, as clear as they were, or quite simply misinterpreted them altogether.

When the United States started giving the Philippines some military hardware, hardware that were specifically suited for the South China Sea theatre, it was virtually telling the Philippines it better start preparing to come to its own defense. Other Philippine allies perfectly understood what was going on. Both Australia and Japan donated similar military hardware.

America just cannot pull the trigger anymore. Its hands are full of domestic front issues that threaten to rip the country apart. It cannot afford to commit more than it has already committed overseas. Its mutual defense treaty with the Philippines? If the US was truly committed to abide by the treaty in a way that the Philippines understood and expected it, why would it find necessary to strike another, much watered-down deal called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement?

But what about those "in-your-face" freedom of navigation sail-throughs and overflights by the US in the South China Sea? Oh, those were just nifty charades meant to project boldness, not just on the part of the United States but of China as well. You do not play those games unless you know perfectly well how they would turn out. Why do you think the US does not play similar games with North Korea? Because the US knows the Nokors are never in the mood for charades.

So where does this leave the Philippines? It would have been tempting to say President Rodrigo Duterte is on the right track in pursuing talks with China except that talking with China is the only track open to the Philippines. There is no other track to pursue unless the Philippines wants to play hard ball, in which case it stands to lose more than it already has.

By talking with China, the Philippines hopes to achieve two things. One, a halt to all further Chinese expansion in areas China has a dispute with the Philippines. Two, gain concessions from China that would allow, at the very least, the return of Filipino fishermen to fishing grounds now off limits to them. And, if it can be stretched, include exploration for undersea riches, perhaps with Chinese cooperation.

With America all but out of the picture, except for the echoes of its now-meaningless patronizing, the Philippines finds itself in the sad and sorry position of having to deal with a tormentor. Abandoned and hurting, its fond memories of a friendship now turn bitter under a new light. Even the strict immigration and tourist policies against Filipinos who only want to work or visit now seem a betrayal in light of the ease with which the US opens its doors to eventual terrorists.

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