In his first venture into the realm of international relations – aiming to register his intent to pursue an independent foreign policy – President Duterte opted to use, rather than abjure, the controversial street language that helped catapult him from being Davao City mayor to the presidency.
Along the way, he got some hackles up in the United States and the United Nations by spurning, as “lecturing” and “interference,” their leaders’ critical stance and intent to counsel him regarding his war against illegal drugs, which has already caused the killing of 3,000 suspected drug users and pushers by police and vigilantes.
But no matter, President Duterte appears to dismiss the criticisms as par for the course. In his official statement upon returning from the 29th ASEAN Summit in Laos, he said he had succeeded in his mission and could sleep soundly that night. The “most telling words” he delivered to the ASEAN Summit, he said, are as follows:
“In relations with the world, the Philippines will pursue an independent foreign policy. We will observe and insist – I repeat, insist – on the time-honored principles of sovereign equality, non-interference, and commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes to best serve our people and protect the integrity of our country.”
While such declaration “does not offend anybody,” Duterte emphasized, “it sends a message that we have every right to pursue an independent foreign policy without interference.”
With that qualifying term, he establishes a link to foreign policy of what he considers as interference by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon and US President Barack Obama in his domestic war against illegal drugs and criminality – even as the issue of human rights they raise is an international concern. He rejects foreign interference in “all aspects of governance and international relations.”
And to make it starkly clear to all that he knows his source of authority as well as his accountability, he added:
“In our country, it is the President who takes care of the foreign policy. It’s in the Constitution. And you can be very sure that this power given to me by the Constitution will be used only to promote the best interest of the Republic of the Philippines, nothing more.”
As regards critical reactions from other states (read: the US), Duterte said:
“I do not want to pick a fight with any nation now. That is farthest from my mind. I only want to be at peace with everybody doing business with everybody and no quarrels with anybody.”
Thus, on the maritime dispute with China in the South China/West Philippine Sea, Duterte said: “I stressed our commitment to the peaceful settlement of disputes in accordance with international law, including the UNCLOS. And I called on leaders to support the individual and collective effort to bring security and stability in the (SCS/WPS) through rules-based approaches to resolving maritime disputes.”
In a subsequent speech the President categorically stood firmly for the country’s maritime rights that an arbitral tribunal in The Hague has affirmed, but which China refuses to recognize.
“China knows that we are really entitled. Let’s not fool around,” he said. “We already won at the arbitral tribunal. So China knows that we have a claim that is legitimate. But the problem is they are also claiming it as territory.” He has initiated a soft diplomatic approach to the issue by convincing former President Fidel V. Ramos to help thaw the icy relationship with China caused by the preceding Aquino administration’s having called on US military support in confronting China’s aggressive actions in the disputed maritime areas.
But to avoid getting embroiled in any hostile move, Duterte rejected any joint patrol by Filipino forces, whether with American or Chinese counterparts, near the disputed areas now occupied by China. Philippine patrols will only cover our territorial waters, he stressed. This means the US-RP joint patrols announced last April by US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and then Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin will not be continued.
The disentangling from joint patrols with the US is just one practical manifestation of Duterte’s independent foreign policy thrust. But he struck directly at the heart of the overly long-running but untested US-RP “mutual defense” relationship with his recent remark that the remaining American special operations troops in Mindanao – on rotational deployment since 2002 – must leave the country.
Although he cited as the reason for his saying so is that their stay puts them in peril of being targeted for kidnapping and killing by the Abu Sayyaf, he dovetailed his remarks with another telling remark: “For as long as we stay with America, we will never have peace.” Why so?
He preceded that remark by displaying photographs of US troops standing over a pile of Moro people they massacred at Bud Dajo in Sulu in 1906 for resisting American colonial rule. Duterte correlated that brutal incident to the unredressed historical injustices that have fuelled the Bangsamoro rebellion by the MNLF and MILF in the last four decades.
In another speech the next day, Duterte called attention to the massacre in 1901 by American troops of over 2,000 people in Balangiga, Samar in retaliation for an attack by Filipino resistance fighters that killed several US soldiers in their barracks. The message: US troops out! – then and now.
Note that the 2009 US Counterinsurgency Guide, used by the AFP for its Oplan Bayanihan drive against the CPP-NPA and the MILF, includes lessons from the Philippine-American and Moro pacification wars in the early 1900s. In this light, Duterte’s gory flashbacks do justify a serious and thorough review of RP-US “mutual defense” and “special relations” if we are to pursue an independent foreign policy.
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Published in The Philippine Star