ONE MASTER FOR ANOTHER? | Experts wonder if Duterte’s foreign policy is really ‘independent’

July 13, 2017 - 8:35 AM
President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping attend a signing ceremony after their bilateral meeting at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. (Reuters/Etienne Oliveau/Pool)

MANILA, Philippines — Independent foreign policy?

Foreign affairs and maritime law experts wonder if this is the right description for President Rodrigo Duterte’s cozying up to China and his seeming aversion to the United States.

“Independent foreign policy is a good term … Is it really independent foreign policy, or are we just trading one perceived master for another?” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said.

For his part, Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said: “I remember what the President said when he said he wants (and) independent foreign policy, and (yet) when he went to Beijing he told the crowd that, ‘I will be loyal to you forever,’ or ‘I will be in your debt forever,’ something like this.”

“So, I don’t see how you can become independent if you say those things,” he added.

The two, with former National Security Adviser Roilo Golez, spoke at a forum on Wednesday organized by the Stratbase ADR Institute to discuss the first year of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling that reinforced Philippine claims to territories in the South China Sea it is disputing with China.

Stratbase ADR president Dindo Manhit; former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, Stratbase chairman; Koichi Ai, acting director general of the Japan Institute of International Affairs; and Ginnie Bacay-Watson, professor of the Daniel Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, also delivered messages that focused on the framework and the code of conduct in the South China Sea.

Golez saw a bright side to the Philippines’ improved relations with China, which he said “is waking up America,” long considered the country’s closest ally until Duterte started bashing its leaders over human rights concerns in his war on drugs.

In the ongoing battle between extremist gunmen and government forces for Marawi City, Golez noted that the United States has made is its presence felt by sending in surveillance aircraft and sniper rifles, while China has also donated funds for rehabilitation as well as a shipment of arms and ammunition.

“That’s the competition going on, redounding to the benefit of the Philippines,” he said.

Carpio, however, said not even the $24 billion dollar worth of investments and financing agreements the Philippines has gotten from China could not compare to the potential value of the resources in the West Philippine Sea the Asian giant is claiming.

“I think the option is, ‘Do you want the $24 billion or do you want the West Philippine Sea’?” he said.

“We have not yet quantified the value of the West Philippine Sea,” Carpio added. “Any economist would say that the value of the resources in the sea is seven times the value of resources on land, I hope somebody will quantify this because I’m sure, the value of the resources in West Philippine Sea is much, much higher than the value of the $24 billion.”

Golez also cautioned the administration not to be overwhelmed with the pledges of investment because a substantial portion of these are loans and carry with them conditions that would favor Chinese contractors and suppliers.

“So, this is not aid, this is business,” he stressed, adding that the government should carefully weigh the economic value of the investment package from China.

“In terms of economics as defined by the $24-billion package, or more to come later, I think the government should also weigh this with respect to the economic benefits that could be accrued in so many other ways like the FDIs (foreign direct investments), which is something we don’t need to pay,” he said.