CRUCIBLE: Sizing up Du30’s Grit

QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/19 July) – The ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague, Netherlands on 12 July 2016 on the Philippines’ case against China is perceived to be a “milestone” for the Philippines.

Yet, it brought to a new time high the tension between the Philippines and China, as the latter refused to recognize the said Arbitral Tribunal’s decision. Ever since, China has refused to recognize arbitration as a way to settle the South China Sea dispute. It had long insisted bilateral talks with the Philippines.

With the Arbitral Tribunal debunking China’s nine-dash line claim that deeply hurt China, question is raised how best both countries could proceed without damaging their relations further testing thus Du30’s grit in foreign policy.

As China has remained firm and belligerent with its position and even strengthened its hold of South China Sea after the said ruling, the Duterte government has called for “restraint and sobriety,” “not to taunt or flaunt,” “soft-landing approach,” and “peaceful talks” with China.

The government proposed bilateral talks while planning to send former Philippine President Fidel Ramos as envoy to China. Question is raised on China’s objective in post-PCA’s ruling and whether pursuing bilateral talks with China is wholly advantageous to the Philippines without eroding its gain resulting from said ruling and without alienating her Western allies.

There is no doubt that the issue on South China Sea has posed the most difficult challenge to President Du30 with barely two weeks in office. Whereas China has been consistently firm with its “historical claim” of nine-dash line on South China Sea, the Philippines flip-flopped with the change of administration from Pnoy to Digong.

The Aquino government was against holding bilateral talks with China the fact that it filed the said case in The Hague three years ago. Back then, the Aquino Administration, like other past administrations, showed strong leanings to the United States and other Western allies relative to issue on South China Sea. China, then, did not budge.

With the change of administration and with the new president who claimed to be a socialist while showing high degree of affinity with China with his consistently anti-US position even while he was Mayor of Davao City, China continued not to budge putting practically the Du30 government on a bind.

In his phone conversation with US President Barrack Obama before Duterte’s inauguration, then Presumptive President Duterte was quoted to have told Obama: “when there is no wind that could move the sail, I am willing to go bilateral with China.”

To many people, the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling on July 12 is supposedly the “favorable wind” – a milestone according to Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay – to move the sail for Philippine Ship to cross the rough ocean of South China Sea.

Yet, despite winning the case in the PCA, the Philippines could not enforce the said ruling. Neither could the U.N. and the international community.

International norm shows that peaceful mode of settlement like arbitration is devoid of automatic enforceability especially if one party refuses to participate in such mode and has within its authority – especially with such standing of a behemoth like China – the power to reject any ruling of an arbitration body like the PCA.

Even if the Philippines brings its case to the General Assembly and the Security Council, the prospect of gaining the ears of other countries is uncertain given China’s influence in the U.N. All these are reasons why the Du30 government called for “restraint and sobriety” when the Arbitral Tribunal’s decision came out.

As the Philippines proposes bilateral talks with China now, the latter becomes even more stringent in controlling the maritime areas that are supposedly within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

After the Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling, Filipino fishermen in Masinloc, Zambales and other adjacent areas in Luzon are continuously barred by Chinese Coast Guards in the Scarborough Shoal. Thus, many people are now questioning the value of supposed international decision by U.N. entities like the PCA favoring the Philippines when Pinoy fisher folks could not even fish in their traditional fishing area.

Meantime, the request of fishermen for Philippine Coast Guard to secure them remained unheeded by Philippine authorities as they were instructed to keep away from the Scarborough. The reason being is that, the Philippines would not want to raise the tension in the area any further, as if China had not been stoking fire these past several years let alone sensitive to simple prodding of Filipino diplomacy or meek request of reciprocity.

Ordinary folks, swayed by new Administration’s no nonsense war on drugs and criminality amid dramatic rise of arrests and killings of their fellow Filipinos who happened to be drug suspects, could not help but question why the highly regarded Du30’s grit falters when it comes to China including Chinese drug traffickers who are observably major ones responsible in the proliferation of illegal drugs in the country.

To say the least, it only shows the big difference between domestic and foreign policy despite having a president known for his unique style, grit, and courage. Yet, many Du30’s fans are looking for, at least, a modicum of consistency where grit is grit whoever the enemy or culprit is, whether big or small, fellow Filipinos or Chinese.

Perhaps, the value of delineating domestic and foreign policy is merely heuristic whose end is to facilitate understanding of State’s action. But foreign policy analysis is grossly limited unless the query is able to tap into more reliable source of information like history.

For, if the question borders on China’s grand conspiracy as answer to the query why China has the propensity to trick the Philippines over the issue in South China Sea while many of her nationals are flooding the whole country with shabu, there is a need to review even briefly the experience of then robust Sulu Sultanate in the 18th century in her dual fights against European colonial powers and China with their rivalry to control the natural resources (e.g., pearl, bird nest, tripang, shark fins) of the Sulu Archipelago and the strategic sea lanes of South China Sea, the Sulu Sea, and the Malacca Strait.

As British, and later Germans, sold firearms and ammunition to Sulu Sultans to encourage the Tausug to fight more other colonial powers, the Chinese traded drugs particularly opium flooding into the Sulu Archipelago. Locally known as “marat”, opium practically made many Tausug including some Sulu Sultans, their Datus and their “tindug” or warriors chronically “high.”

“Marat” came surreptitiously to Sulu together with the popular Chinese Tea. In later years, “marat” was smuggled from Malaysia and Singapore where Tausug-Chinese mixed it with local coffee and commercialized it making many Tausug “coffee addicts” too.

The over all effect of drugs that time made many Sulu aristocrats hallucinating and indolent in both peace and war time while introducing them to all kinds of Chinese gambling known locally as “panayam” some of it still popular today like “tikam,” “uwahuy,” “piyah-piyah,” “majung,” “kimbuh,” “ligut”, “talang,” and so on.

China’s strategy then aimed to practically make the Tausug with their mind deranged from “marat” such that when they became proficient but often lose in “panayam” they would easily approach local Chinese to lease (sandah) their cows, weapons, and especially their lands. As they were not able to redeem (lukat) their lands, many Tausug turned to banditry and became “mundu” marauding both their fellow locals, “Lannang” (Chinese) and Bisayah in other places.

As many Tausug lands, farms, and orchards where leased to local Chinese, many “Lannang Sinah” (mostly Chinese immigrants from Southern China) were able to own vast tract of lands in Jolo, Basilan, Siasi, and other parts of the Sulu Archipelago and elsewhere.

Observably, while Chinese gambling referred later by Tausug religious as “panayam hapus” was easily popularized in the whole Sulu Archipelago in the latter part of 18th century, there was seemingly a systematic attempt to withhold Tausug from learning Chinese skills in science and mathematics and other wholesome sports that promote strategic mindset, critical thinking, and physical development.

This is why the Tausug then hardly learned the use of abacus, the game of chess, and Chinese martial arts, although the Tausug developed their local version of martial arts known as “bunga lima” (literally known as fruit of the hands) as shown in their “kuntaw” and “silat.”

Henceforth, while Sulu Sultanate withstood Western colonialism for centuries, it succumbed in so short a period, to China’s two-pronged wars against the Tausug: the first was drugs; the second was gambling.

The parallelism of Sulu’s past and the present malaise of the Philippines is not difficult to connect as answer to the query why there is an overwhelming China’s over-the-top grip of the country these days – from Scarborough to shabu to made-in-china merchandise in Divisoria and Binondo to practically all malls and stalls in the country and elsewhere.

But to blame China for the malaise of Sulu society during colonial time or the malaise of Philippine society today is to miss a critical point. On the main, it was power struggle and internal wrangling among Tausug leaders that made the Sulu Sultanate a shell of its old self as waves of colonialism came and went leaving the “Bangsa Sug” or Tausug nation devastated and unable to rise since then.

Similarly, up until the time of the Reform Movement in mid 19th century, Jose Rizal lamented the absence of “national sentiment” among early Filipinos as they simply lived as individuals than as a nation with their leaders serving more themselves, their families, and their colonial masters than the Motherland.

Rizal’s reading of Philippine society then fits well in today’s continuing fragmentation of the “Filipino Self” – a reason why despite years of freedom and independence, the hard truth is, the Philippines’ “social cancer” continues to bleed and to mutate with major Filipino-Chinese families controlling the Philippine economy.

Whereas the most disadvantaged ones of local Pinoys continue to live in the margin easily branded as culprits, wantonly killed as criminals instead as victims, instead of being helped, healed, and rehabilitated if they happened to succumb to criminality with the State often playing the role of a slayer, denying them the chance to find their true “selves” and to positively contribute in the formation of new Filipino national community that Rizal originally envisioned.

Back on present China, for sure, she is expected to agree to bilateral talks offered by the Philippines for the first time. From China’s perspective, its acceptance of bilateral talks would not already be in the context of pre-PCA’s ruling.

Today, China’s objective in bilateral talks is two folds: (1) to lessen the Philippine and international pressure generated by PCA’s ruling; and; (2) to superimpose the PCA’s decision with possible bilateral agreements with the Philippines constituting possibly of mostly economic assistance and development package.

If simply guided with short-term interest, the Philippines would be vulnerable to China’s maneuvering given the economic difficulty the Philippines is facing these days; more so, that President Duterte had already an initial understanding with the Chinese Ambassador when he expressed willingness to forge stronger ties with China if the latter helps build, for instance, metro railways to interconnect major cities and provinces in Mindanao, among others.

Given China’s deeper interest in South China Sea, it is not far-fetched for China to possibly agree to many economic demands of the Philippines if, by doing so, China is guaranteed control of the whole South China Sea particularly the international sea lane and strategic resources and other maritime entitlements therein including primary role to explore oil and natural gas in the area.

What China would give as assistance to the Philippines is expectedly less than what China could gain in controlling South China Sea. Possibly, too, China’s assistance to the Philippines would simply be sourced or offset from the proceeds of resources in the South China Sea so long China is assured dominance in the region.

While the above scenario would obviously bring the Philippines closer to China’s orbit, it would alienate the country from her Western allies like the United States, European Union, Japan, and others. Therefore, it poses a question whether the Philippines is ready with such a paradigm shift of foreign policy the moment bilateral talks with China kick off.

What is certain, as global tension between China and Western powers intensifies in their contest for control of, and access to, the South China Sea, the dilemma of the Philippines deepens further. Beijing would dangle more forks on the road to entice Manila with its own version of “favorable wind” putting into real test Du30’s grit in handling the Philippine sail. (MindaViews is opinion section of MindaNews. Julkipli Wadi is Professor of Islamic Studies, University of the Philippines).