Part 1 – A discordant foreign policy
“IF rape is inevitable, you might as well enjoy it.” This just about sums up our foreign policy with regard to the West Philippine Sea (WPS). But the inevitable has happened. We are already being raped by China. And our leadership has decided to struggle and complain only half-heartedly. In fact, our leadership has gone out of its way to convince us that: a) we can’t do anything about it; and b) we might as well make the most of the situation.

Others will probably contradict me and say, this is not rape. This is plain and simple prostitution, a degree of perversion that is much, much lower. We are therefore reduced to defining our relationship with China as either rape or prostitution.

During PNoy’s watch, the Philippines formally brought an arbitration case against China’s territorial claims, based on the so-called ‘nine-dash line’ encompassing almost the whole of the South China Sea, turning the SCS into in effect a Chinese lake, transgressing territories of several countries: Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. Our country went to seek relief from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague as any civilized country would do. On July 12, 2016, at the start of President Duterte’s term, the tribunal decided in the Philippines’ favor, saying that China’s claims exceed the limits of maritime entitlements permitted under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

In short, China’s claim to “historical rights” has no legal basis whatsoever and that China has violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights. China did not participate in the proceedings and rejected the ruling declaring. According to UNCLOS, nations have sovereignty over waters extending 12 nautical miles from its land and “exclusive control” over economic activities in an exclusive economic zone (EEZ) 200 nautical miles out.

The disputed territories include Pag-asa (Scarborough Shoal) in Luzon and the bigger Kalayaan island group off Palawan in the southwestern Philippines. For decades, these islands, islets, keys and reefs were haven for fishermen from different nationalities containing no large settlements, until one country after another countries laying claim on these territories, either by including them in their national maps or occupying the place physically and declaring ownership outright. The Philippines was not entirely innocent in this matter as a Filipino lawyer Tomas Cloma declared the “Free Territory of Freedomland” in 1956. This declaration triggered unfriendly actions from other countries, notably China.

But we did go to the Hague and the PCA decided in our favor. The ruling placed the Philippines on a moral high ground. This helped enhance Philippine credibility when the governemnt executed a pivot to China away from America in 2016 signaling “an independent foreign policy.” This was regarded as a wise move as this acknowledged the formidable economic behemoth with almost 1.4 billion people as a trading partner and the emerging superpower. The Deegong’s gesture endeared him to China and she gladly reciprocated with economic incentives the Philippine badly needed, impelling the ‘build, build, build’ protocols. It was also made clear to America that our century’s old special relations must undergo changes that must respond to the ever-changing geopolitical realities. But the close family ties will not be broken.

But the Deegong, armed with the righteousness of the arbitral ruling and his preeminence as head of the Asean for the year we hosted the summits, failed to rally the other countries fretting over China’s 9-dash line claims. He instead declared expansively that the Philippines, China and Russia now formed the new triumvirate—whatever that means. This naivetè may just have emboldened China, a bully in the playground, to read very well the actuations of a neophyte in geopolitics. A stern warning that China will not recognize the arbitral ruling and will not back down on the 9-dash line caims, risking war on one hand but appeasing the Philippines with large amounts of economic incentives, on the other, sealed the fate of the conflict territories. Thus, China embarked on a massive build-up of its occupied territories in the Kalayaan island group.

DU30, now deep into his bromance with Xi Jinping and protecting his role as a partner to China and the promise of economic goodies has been profuse in his praise and admiration for the China strong man.

From the time the arbitral question was decided in our favor, China has strengthened its hold on the Kalayaan group in the Spratlys, Fiery Cross, Subi Reef and Mischief Reef, expanding their areas by several thousand meters. Hangars along airstrips; underground structures for munitions and essential materiel; hardened missile platforms and radar and communication facilities were installed. Satellite photos from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) show short-range missiles in place and aircraft flying in and out ferrying personnel and materiel. There is no doubt of China’s ongoing militarization of the islands that the Philippines lay claim to.

But what has been the Philippines’ response? They range from the pathetic to the bizarre. Duterte said the Philippines cannot stop China from building on (the islands), adding that he cannot let soldiers die in a war that the country is certain to lose. (Rappler, March 20, 2017)

The President is unable to or refuses to see options other than of a “butangero” in the streets is inured to. Reduce the alternatives into a fist fight or flee.” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 16 November 2017).

And the bizarre.

“Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque even said that the time will come that the Philippines will thank China for the artificial island they’ve built ‘if we can ask China to leave the islands’.” (PDI, 8 February 2018)

In the assessment of one expert, Gregory Poling, director of the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, the DU30 administration’s WPS policy as seeking to avoid war with China and wanting Filipino fishermen to be able to fish is “…well-intentioned but naïve. I don’t think that’s practicality. I think that’s defeatist. But the only options here are not surrender or war. There is a whole spectrum of ways to impose costs on the Chinese for being bullies and outlaws, that we haven’t yet tried. It’s a little early to fly the white flag and surrender now.” (Rappler, March 20, 2017)

The Senate President crowed yesterday that the party he nominally coheads, PDP-Laban, has a “pleasant problem” — too many potential senatorial candidates. Koko Pimentel’s estimate is they have up to 20 possible choices for the 12-person slate for the 2019 senatorial race. But his list includes the five administration-affiliated senatorial incumbents up for reelection next year. This is a group that has made noises that, much as it prefers to remain in the administration camp, it is unhappy with the way PDP-Laban has been designating its local leaders and candidates, and therefore prefers to strike out on its own, perhaps in alliance with the other administration (regional) party, Hugpong ng Pagbabago, headed by the President’s daughter and current Davao City mayor, Sara Duterte.

Setting aside, then, the five-person “Force,” the administration-oriented but not PDP-friendly reelectionists (Nancy Binay, Sonny Angara, Cynthia Villar, Grace Poe, and JV Ejercito), what Koko’s crowing over is a mixed bag. Some of them have been floated by Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez (with whom Mayor Duterte clashed in recent months): six representatives (Gloria Macapagal Arroyo who is in her last term in the House of Representatives; Albee Benitez, Karlo Nograles, Rey Umali, Geraldine Roman, and Zajid Mangudadatu), three Cabinet members (Bong Go, Harry Roque, and Francis Tolentino), and two other officials (Mocha Uson and Ronald dela Rosa), which still only adds up to 11 possible candidates (who are the missing three?).

Of all of these, the “Force” reelectionists are only fair-weather allies of the present dispensation; their setting themselves apart is about much more than the mess PDP-Laban made in, say, San Juan where support for the Zamoras makes it extremely unattractive for JV Ejercito to consider being in the same slate. Their cohesion is about thinking ahead: Creating the nucleus for the main coalition to beat in the 2022 presidential election. The contingent of congressmen and congresswomen who could become candidates for the Senate, however, seems more a means to kick the Speaker’s rivals upstairs (at least in the case of Benitez and Arroyo) and pad the candidates’ list with token but sacrificial candidates, a similar situation to the executive officials being mentioned as possible candidates (of the executive officials, only Go seems viable, but making him run would deprive the President of the man who actually runs the executive department, and would be a clear signal that the administration is shifting to a post-term protection attitude instead of the more ambitious system-change mode it’s been on, so far).

Vice President Leni Robredo has been more circumspect, saying she’s not sure the Liberal Party can even muster a full slate. The party chair, Kiko Pangilinan, denied that a list circulating online (incumbent Bam Aquino, former senators Mar Roxas, Jun Magsaysay, TG Guingona, current and former representatives Jose Christopher Belmonte, Kaka Bag-ao, Edcel Lagman, Raul Daza, Gary Alejano and Erin Tañada, former governor Eddie Panlilio and Cebu City Mayor Tomas Osmeña) had any basis in fact.

What both lists have in common is they could be surveys-on-the-cheap, trial balloons to get the public pulse. Until the 17th Congress reconvenes briefly from May 14 to June 1 for the tail end of its second regular session (only to adjourn sine die until the third regular session begins on July 23), it has nothing much to do. Except, that is, for the barangay elections in May, after a last-ditch effort by the House to postpone them yet again to October failed.

Names can be floated but the real signal will come in July, when the President mounts the rostrum and calls for the big push for a new constitution—or not. Connected to this would be whether the Supreme Court disposes of its own chief, which would spare the Senate—and thus, free up the legislative calendar—to consider Charter change instead of an impeachment trial. In the meantime, what congressmen do seem abuzz over is an unrefusable invitation to the Palace tomorrow — to mark Arroyo’s birthday. An event possibly pregnant with meaning.
In politics there’s no such thing as being too big to fail. Ruling coalitions become ruling parties, at which point being bloated often results in a party split, as factions lose out in the jockeying and sense an opportunity to strike out — and strike back — by forming rival coalitions to contest the next election. In regional terms, the Visayas (Cebu in particular, with Pusyon Bisaya) and Mindanao (with the Mindanao Alliance) have their own tradition of regional parties standing up to Marcos’ KBL: even PDP-Laban traces its origins to that era. Regional barons don’t take well to being bossed around, and if a boss gets too big for his britches, a revolt is inevitable. This is why everyone seems to be expecting Speaker Pantaleon Alvarez to fall, the beneficiary of his toppling being Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but the cause being widely attributed to Davao Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio’s sharp-tongued confrontation with him.

The clash between the mayor of Davao and the representative from the first district of Davao del Norte has been framed as a battle royale between the Speaker’s machinery and everyone else, under the umbrella of the President’s daughter. The Speaker’s take-no-prisoners approach most famously took on the President’s former patron, Antonio Floirendo Jr., with the President weighing in on the Speaker’s side after Floirendo supposedly was too uppity in response to the President’s efforts to smooth things over. But if it was necessary to teach Floirendo a lesson, it seems the time has come to teach Alvarez one, too, not least because a Floirendo-led effort to defeat the Speaker in 2019 is widely expected to succeed. But it is bigger than that as the presence of Sen. JV Ejercito at the launching of Duterte-Carpio’s regional party demonstrated. The Estrada home turf of San Juan has been rocked by a confrontation between the Zamoras and Mayor Guia Gomez, yet PDP-Laban took in the Zamoras despite JV Ejercito’s support for the President. What sort of treatment is that? And so, for every ally denied the blessings of the ruling party, there now glitters the opportunity to be associated with Hugpong ng Pagbabago.

In the meantime, aside from publicly being humiliated by Duterte-Carpio, the Speaker came under attack within his own party from members unhappy with his recruitment methods and for supposedly giving the cold shoulder to party veterans. Creating the impression of a civil war within a party is a tried-and-tested method for taking down party bigwigs a peg or two, and what matters most here is the hands-off announcement from the Palace when it comes to party matters. Those with sensitive political antennae will take it as the absence of a ringing endorsement for the Speaker, at a time when he has been accused by no less than the President’s fiercely outspoken daughter for being disloyal and disruptive.

PDP-Laban and Hugpong ng Pagbabago trying to outdo each other in being more “Dutertista” than the other only increases the chances of keeping the overall ruling coalition intact, and tying all factions to the Palace’s apron strings. It’s also a pointed reminder to the Speaker, even if he survives, not to be too piggish in the company of piglets. It does not do well for a runt to act too convinced that he’s an undefeatable wild boar. While he leads a big chunk of last-term congressmen, he has been too pushy with his no-election-in-2019 agenda, leaving no room for those looking forward to replacing last-termers, and bruising the feelings of so many players — and the public, too, which otherwise might give the President’s Charter change scheme the benefit of the doubt if only it weren’t so obviously stacking the odds in favor of people like Alvarez. Now the Speaker’s scheme is running out of steam, just when the President’s collection of consultative commission mummies are showing signs of life.

Still, all the factions could reunite by the State of the Nation Address in July, where the President could make a pitch for a plebiscite on a new constitution by October — the deadline for filing candidacies for the 2019 midterms. It will be the
balancing act of a lifetime.