By Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat
Facing an existential crossroad posed by the People’s Republic of China’s incursions inside the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, the bravado of Rodrigo Duterte and his regime is now put in a critical litmus test. Now more than ever, the words of former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales resonate with a heavier note: “A nation can survive its fools, and even the ambitious. But it cannot survive treason from within.”
What the public is now witnessing are ubiquitous undercurrents of duplicity, cowardice, and the dilution of valor’s essence on Duterte’s end. The Duterte presidency, which banked on a populist image of swagger, is grappling with the regime’s worst existential crisis: the paradox that straddles between the regime’s bombast and bluster against “enemies of the State” vis-à-vis Duterte’s fawning attitude toward China’s impetuous aggression within the country’s territories.
Take this contrast of images, as an example: in the crucial week when a Filipino civilian vessel schlepping ABS-CBN’s news team, led by journalist Chiara Zambrano, endured an despicable chase by the Chinese Navy’s missile-carrying military sea vessels inside the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone – which spans 200 nautical miles from the shores of Palawan’s southernmost land – the vociferous red-tagger and big boss of the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Southern Luzon Command, Antonio Parlade, Jr, was still preoccupied by his wistful and delusory “fight” against the 52-year old armed struggle waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines.
As astonishing as that brazen chase already was, the military leadership, in a rash account that betrays its own purpose for existence, even went to the stretch of blaming Zambrano and ABS-CBN, and their “insatiable” desire for reporting, for eliciting bullying from China’s militia forces. Meanwhile, the tough generals which were once flexing their macho posturing under the National Task Force to End the Local Communist Armed Conflict’s banner are now nowhere to be found, too conveniently silent while China is snatching Philippine islands.
Another blow to Duterte’s “bravado” was the parallelism of his own alter egos’ response to how China conducts itself: after he denounced China’s incursions into the West Philippine Sea as “appalling,” Delfin Lorenzana has now fallen silent. Over Twitter, the country’s Foreign Affairs secretary, Teodoro Locsin, Jr., who himself was a journalist who worked before in ABS-CBN, also did what the AFP had done: put the onus of blame on the media, asserting that China’s harassment of a Filipino civilian vessel within Philippine seas was borne out of ABS-CBN’s loss of franchise.
While this whole mêlée unfolds before the public’s eyes, Duterte busies himself with golf and jogging during curfew hours.
If there is a stark imagery that would show the denigration of Duterte’s “bravado,” it must be this: while this regime is fierce, harsh, and even violent in whipping ordinary Filipino folks with an “iron fist,” it exudes a meek attitude and extends a slovenly hand toward the biggest threat to the country’s national security. What happened in March 7, when some 200 Chinese militia vessels were reported to have moored in the Julian Felipe Reef, and in April 8, when several Chinese militia forces hounded Filipino civilians cruising near the Ayungin shoal, are but latest additions into the list of China’s encroachments within the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone.
Lorenzana called China’s illegal pilfering of the Julian Felipe Reef “appalling” and called on China to do away with their illicit occupation of the reef, while Locsin blasted China’s barefaced defense of that inexcusable bellicosity in a series of tweets. But what was Duterte’s response? An unwarranted line of reasoning that China’s attempt to snatch away Julian Felipe Reef poses “no obstacle” in Manila and Beijing’s vaccine cooperation. When several of these Chinese militia vessels chased a Filipino news crew within the Philippines’ own territory, the Palace’s answer was as incredible as it is foreseen and contemptible: a dutiful silence.
Contrast that meek attitude on the part of the Duterte administration’s engagement with China with how this government, on the other hand (or fist), has been dealing with Filipinos. While it cannot even have the bravery to face off the real threat against national security manifesting itself in the West Philippine Sea, the police and the military had killed nine activists across Southern Luzon’s provinces under the guise of “legitimate police operations”—on the same day that 200 Chinese militia vessels had started to encircle around Julian Felipe Reef.
Raids into offices of trade unions, arrests of activists in Central Luzon, and the dastardly murder of unionist Dandy Miguel three weeks after Bloody Sunday’s carnage, followed suit. Parlade was all around Facebook and the media, defending the killings of activists that he and the witch-hunt task force that he represents has so unjustly and erroneously tagged as communists. Joining his orchestra was police chief Debold Sinas, who himself was the architect of deadly “anti-crime” police operations that killed dozens of activists and farmers across Negros’ bloodied fields.
Yet, in the face of China’s immense show of terrorism within Philippine waters, Parlade and Sinas are too silent—if not toeing the line of their principal, their commander-in-chief who doubles as China’s loyal lapdog. Eduardo Año, who was among the litany of Duterte’s officials now striking a fight against COVID-19, was all too tough with communist rebels waging a guerilla war—while conveniently silent in the face of China’s might. Lorenzana strived to show some stiffness in his first reaction to China’s recent actions, but his script now is the same piercing silence, even a lopsided show of “calibration,” befalling the Duterte administration.
In this week alone, there were two incidents of alleged quarantine “violators” dying from local officials and the police’s draconian treatment of intransigent citizens or pasaway who does not sport the name Debold Sinas or Aquilino Pimentel III. General Trias was a silent witness to this horrid show of brutality that is a hallmark of Duterte’s regime: one of its own died after the police forced him to do 300 rounds of pumping exercises as “punishment.” Not long after, another resident in Calamba, Laguna – in the town where death squad agents killed Dandy Miguel – was killed after local officials took turns in heavily beating him, again as a form of “punishment.”
How can one rationalize the paradox in the Duterte regime’s show of bravado? On the one hand, it tramples upon the very same citizenry to which it owes a vow to “serve and protect,” in accordance with both the letter and spirit of the 1987 Constitution, with a mailed fist—and a gun. On the other hand, after “distancing” itself from the United States (without even abrogating unequal treaties that other presidents had penned with Washington), Duterte has been exercising a policy of meekness, subservience, and obedience to the whims and caprices of China’s imperial ambitions, extending the hand of “peace” to that imperialist power who aims to gobble up the country’s territories while his war machine is killing off thousands of Filipinos.
The irony of the quicksand which Duterte’s regime faces cannot be any starker: his local policy of violence does not cohere with his international policy of deference, against the backdrop of a budding international superpower posing a bigger threat to the Filipino people than Duterte’s enemies. It is tough when it deals with left-leaning organizations, civil society, dissenters who are under assault from his “anti-terror” law, the political opposition, and the free press. But when it is faced with China’s missiles, militias, and military aggression, it is outrageously obedient.
Never mind that the very broadcasting network for whose shutdown the madman president had egged on his congressional “supermajority” to deliver, and its news team, had valiantly went where Duterte cannot even have the moral nerve to step foot. Never mind that, while Filipinos are undergoing harassment from China inside the country’s own territories, Parlade was too engrossed about the New People’s Army. Never mind that the president’s own security group had benefited from an illegal and scandalous under-the-table slide of China’s vaccines, at a time when the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t given a go-signal yet for Chinese vaccines.
As long as the Duterte government appeases Beijing, nothing else would matter.
In fact, this two-faced bravado of Duterte can be gleaned in his own mishandled response to the COVID-19 pandemic. He refused to declare a travel ban to avoid offending China. He frequently mentions China’s Great Leader, Xi Jinping, in his public statements to thank China for its purported generosity. His officials “dropped the ball” in initial negotiations with the Western pharmaceutical firm Pfizer for vaccine procurement, to allow China’s Sinovac to take the vaccination center stage – on the account of donations. But, as economists like to say, there is no such thing as a free lunch; everything comes with a hefty price. China’s encroachments into the Julian Felipe Reef, as well as the entire West Philippine Sea, might be China’s price tag for Sinovac donations—which are not even that recommended in fending off COVID-19’s fatal threat, since the confidentiality of the results of Sinovac’s efficiency tests and trials leave medical and health experts aghast.
Legal adage may offer an even heftier note on the country’s battle against China’s territorial infractions: “When the guns speak, the laws fall silent.” That is the same principle that China follows in its incorrigible decision to forego the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling favoring Philippine claims in the West Philippine Sea, utilizing military might and aggression to covet islands, reefs, and seas which no less than international jurisprudence itself, and the highest arbitration court in the world, has awarded to the Philippines.
Paradoxically, Duterte imbibes the similar principle both in exerting violent belligerence to Filipinos and in his servile treatment of China. In his bloody drug war or “war against Reds,” both of which have killed thousands of lives, Duterte allows state forces’ guns to take precedence over the Bill of Rights, due process, and the rule of law—in his sadistic show of treacherous force and dictatorial puff against his own people. In his pogrom of servility for Beijing, Duterte undermines a landmark legal promulgation of Filipino territorial claims with his groveling to China’s munificence—with strings attached—and his bold pronouncements professing how he “loves” Xi, or how the country “needs” China, or how China “would not allow” his ouster.
Can the public account Duterte’s Manchurian show of bravado to cowardice alone? It’s a narrow view. Cowardice alone does not fuel the Duterte regime’s act of pandering to China. It involves self-interest, his own instinct of survival, and the regime’s quest for a solid bedrock which the United States cannot fully provide for him. It involves Duterte’s alignment with global powers who share his utmost disdain for human rights, civil liberties, and democracy.
In the final analysis, the paradox that entangles Duterte’s tough dictatorship in the local level with his unabashed docile relations with China, do not simply end with a discourse of Duterte, or his murderous generals, cowering in the face of imperialism. This paradox also involves, and more deliberately, the identical essence of betrayal, the inexplicable Duterte doctrine, that suffuses Malacañang’sflagrant transgression and utter contempt of law—and Duterte’s tango with China’s imperial regime.
That doctrine coaxing the China-Duterte collusion, for what it’s worth, has a name: treason.
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat is a campus journalist, activist, and writer. He works for the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines – Laguna, writes for sundry national publications, and wades through endless stacks of books for leisure.