First, Malacañang spokesman Salvador Panelo described as “futile” the recent complaint against Chinese President Xi Jingping filed by former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales over China’s transgressions in the West Philippine Sea. Now, President Rodrigo Duterte has issued a blunt warning to his erstwhile friend to back off from Pagasa Island or else he will order “suicide missions” against the obviously superior Chinese forces.
The Duterte warning comes after he received reports that over 200 Chinese vessels have begun to apply its “cabbage” tactic against Pagasa, with the apparent objective of choking the Philippine presence on the island.
Duterte, who has insisted that he still wants to remain friends with China, declared, “I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there.”
The news has been carried by international media and has been described as the first time Duterte has been this blunt to the Chinese over territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Duterte added, “If you touch it (Pagasa), that’s another story. Then I will tell my soldiers ‘prepare for suicide missions.’”
You might call them the Rambotertes.
Of course, the reason for describing an armed conflict with the Chinese as suicidal is because of the obvious superiority of China’s military. The fate of the Rambotertes could be worse than that of the Fallen Forty-four.
But why has Duterte changed his tune?
Has Duterte finally realized that he is being regarded as full of hot air because of his passivity towards the Chinese in contrast to his fire and thunder rhetoric against his political opponents and his undiplomatic language against his international critics? Or is it because he wants to gain brownie points in the forthcoming elections with voters who have begun to doubt his strongman persona?
Or is it because he has been reassured of US military support in case of an armed conflict with the Chinese? In a recent visit to Manila, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly gave the assurance that the US will come to the Philippines’ aid in case of an armed attack by the Chinese. Pompeo was clearly referring to the tensions in the West Philippine Sea.
Observers believe the reasons for Duterte’s bluntness are all of the above. Duterte’s popularity with his base has been mainly due to his tough guy stance. Even his visual symbol is a clenched fist. But his fawning attitude towards the Chinese has increasingly been described by his critics as cowardice – and that apparently is the one thing that hurts Duterte’s macho ego.
To be realistic, the Philippines has a puny military compared to the Chinese and our country would be like a little mouse roaring at the dragon. But critics have demanded that, as the leader of a sovereign nation, Duterte should at very least defend our rights in the proper international forums. Which was what then President Benigno Aquino III and then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario did, and which was what Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has repeatedly urged Duterte to do.
But Duterte did the opposite when he disregarded the ruling of the international maritime tribunal that China’s claims had no legal basis. Duterte’s apologists have tried to justify this by claiming that ruffling the feathers of the Chinese would jeopardize negotiations for economic aid and infrastructure loans.
But even this rationale has worn thin because of China’s allegedly predatory lending tactics which have resulted in its taking over facilities of countries that have had difficulty paying back development loans.
With his rationalizations becoming less and less defensible, Duterte may have found something to fall back on with the recent reassurance given by Pompeo. Added to this have been the continuing activities of the U.S. navy in the South China Sea, which the Chinese have characterized as increasing tensions in the area.
Just recently, naval forces of the U.S. and the United Kingdom conducted joint exercises in the South China Sea. The Chinese have been unable to do anything about this not-so-subtle warning that there are superior military powers that can make them behave.
The Americans have made it clear that they intend to exercise freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. They are, in a manner of speaking, placing a chip on their shoulder and daring the Chinese to knock it off. At this point, Beijing knows better than to take on the 7th Fleet.
Of course this is not necessarily because of America’s fondness for the Philippines. The South China Sea lanes are of utmost political, military and economic importance to the US and the Americans won’t be deprived of the freedom to navigate the area.
US military officials have expressed growing concern over China’s increasing military might. They know that China is raring to reclaim Taiwan, as well as take over the entire South China Sea area, but they do not believe that China has the capability at this point in time. However, the Chinese are famous for biding their time.
But what could force the hand of the Chinese military is an armed conflict with the Philippines over Pagasa. If Duterte makes good his threat to dispatch suicide missions to defend Philippine sovereignty, the Chinese dragon may have to think twice about crushing the pesky Pinoy mouse.
But the Chinese will have to worry about an American military reaction to such a conflict. Thus, any action that the Chinese may take against the Philippines will have to be “measured” and “calculated.”
The “cabbage” tactic — which is a process of wrapping up the disputed territories like several layers of cabbage leaves — is precisely such a measured and calculated move. If Duterte’s Rambotertes suddenly strike at the Chinese vessels in a suicide or surprise attack, the Chinese can pretend to be the victims of unprovoked violence and will claim the right to “defend” themselves.
The question is, will the US consider such a “defensive” move an “attack” on the Philippines?
This may be a game of chess or Chinese checkers or sungka. Whoever makes the first violent move will be construed as the “attacker.” In such a case, a suicide mission may not be advisable.
What may be advisable is for Duterte (accompanied by Ping Lacson, perhaps) to make an official trip to Pagasa and celebrate Philippine independence day there, complete with a flag raising ceremony.
Better yet, have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as a guest of honor. Or, at least, US Ambassador to the Philippines Sung Kim. Bets can be safely placed that the Chinese can only seethe with frustration over this. But they won’t dare do more than that. Dragons can get scared too.
Come to think of it, Duterte may also want to invite the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines to the event.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.