Window dressing
OFF TANGENT - Aven Piramide (The Freeman) - September 27, 2020 - 12:00am

President Rodrigo Duterte delivered a monumental message before the United Nations Organization general assembly, few days ago. To me, a professed unbeliever of his leadership, it was an almost perfect speech as to become an awesome source of national pride to all of us, Filipinos (meaning, including me). Not only was it written and therefore read, in a form that approximates the highest diplomatic standards, it, more importantly, hews along the tenets of international law. When Duterte spoke of the decision of the international arbitral tribunal acknowledging the sovereign rights of our country over some islands in the West Philippine Sea as against China’s Nine-Dash Line, he harkened to the call of the millions of our countrymen to uphold what is our legal territorial right. He was not and could not go wrong. After all, an international body so ruled.

The president could not be wrong in the declaration he made before the UN. To assert, among other matters, that the decision of the arbitral tribunal is now part of a compendious and expanding body of maritime law and jurisprudence, demonstrates a brand new Duterte fealty to the rule of law. My God, he rekindled my diminishing idea of public international law. Duterte was and will continue to be correct in this, his UN message. In effect, he alerts all other sovereign states, the People’s Republic of China, among them, that we are poised to invoke what has been legally determined. That we own the islands dotting the West Philippine Sea is a now such a settled issue that there is nothing that can perceptively challenge its validity. Negatively speaking, the Nine-Dash Line assertions of China which tended to cast doubt on our territorial claims is without legal basis. China’s installing military facilities in this area certainly transgresses our territorial rights as it violates transnational maritime trade.

To many among us, the president clarified an earlier leadership uncertainty. For more than three years starting at the beginning of his presidency, Duterte’s stance on this issue was marked with troubling vagueness. His friendliness with Communist China was too obvious. To ordinary citizens like me, Duterte appeared to develop a preference for China over our national interest. His pronounced refusal to benefit from the ruling handed down by the tribunal seemed to indicate his disregard of the legal adjudication in our favor.

While it seems to me that there is a perceptible change in our president’s international color, I cannot help but be wary. This is caused by a historical fact. In the early 1980s, I came across the term “window dressing”. An opinion column of a then leading-business daily wrote about the figures of the economic performance of the Philippines in the period. In all honesty, I didn’t quite understand the full impact of the article principally because I had no economics background which, apparently, the term is a part of. Hoping to understand better the article, I did a little research and from what I read, I realized that window dressing meant a clever but actually misleading presentation of something. In the context of the write-up, it was a projection of a badly-performing economy in a better imagery. Whatever rosy pictures of the country’s economy government fiscal officers attempted to show were, in fact, false concoctions.

What Duterte did was a case of political window dressing. He could not deliver a speech that would accept China’s incursion into our territory because that would put him on the proverbial spot. The international hostility he would create in admitting that the military installations built by China in our islands would keep international peace would only generate turmoil. Yes, Duterte could only do a window dressing.

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