“Are you with us or are you not with us?” by Erick San Juan

A question raised by President Rodrigo Duterte to US Ambassador Philip Goldberg in a recent meeting in Davao City. Amb. Goldberg answered, “Only if you are attacked.”

Is this a valid answer coming from a long-time ally? I believe so, as an observer of events, we have written about this on how far the US can extend its helping hand when our country will be needing the Big Brother’s help.

Yes, for a time we have doubts on Washington’s sincerity in extending its support to us if ever we will encounter a military clash with our neighbors specifically with China on the South China Sea issue. This is because of the close economic ties between US and China and its bilateral meetings on military matters in the Pacific region.

Even though we have several treaties with the US on defence and security, as we know, these treaties are lopsided and we are at the losing end and yet our leaders seem not to bother to correct such wrongs.

Now that the country’s president asked that crucial question, it is a good start to check our relationship with Uncle Sam. And during his campaign, President Duterte said that we have to change some of our foreign policy and be less dependent with the US.

As the new president, Duterte has to wait for some of the ongoing developments in the country. One such issue is the upcoming decision that will come from the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) from The Hague on the territorial dispute on the South China Sea.

As what my friend Prof. Rommel C. Banlaoi wrote in his commentary in RSIS (Rajaratnam School of International Studies) — “The Duterte presidency could open many opportunities for the improvement of Philippines-China political relations. But Duterte has to be cognizant of two major challenges that might affect his administration’s achievement of that goal: The first is the result of the international arbitration of the South China Sea dispute between the Philippine government and China. The PCA is expected to render its decision soon. Should the International Arbitral Tribunal not offer the Philippines a total legal victory on the case, even a partial legal victory can yield some political purposes domestically and internationally.”

Duterte has the option of using the result of the arbitration as his main political leverage in resuming bilateral talks with China. But there is a strong likelihood that Duterte will not pursue this option, as China will not want to see him raising the arbitration case in the process of resuming any bilateral discussions on the South China Sea disputes.

As a confidence building measure, it is likely that Duterte will keep mum on the arbitration result and set it aside for the time being while his administration exerts efforts to repair the Philippines’ damaged political ties with China. But there is no way for him to withdraw from the arbitration process because of domestic and international considerations.

Domestically, the arbitration case has the approval not only of the Filipino public but also of key national leaders involving past presidents, the senate president, the speaker of the house, justices of the supreme court and concerned department secretaries. Internationally, the international arbitration case has the support of the Philippines’ security ally, the United States, and other strategic partners in the region like Japan, Australia, South Korea, and key members of the European Union and Asean. Especially now that the ASEAN integration is in the offing. The globalists are very optimistic of the Asean economic and geo-political unification. No spoiler state will be tolerated.

But if bilateral talks with China fail to bear fruit that will redound to the benefit of the Filipino people, particularly on Filipino fishermen who are greatly affected by sea disputes, Duterte can use the arbitration decision as a fall back option. Thus, China also needs to exert its own efforts in fixing its broken political relationship with the Philippines as it takes two to tango, so to speak.

The second is the implementation of the Enhance Defence Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the US. The Duterte administration is duty bound to implement EDCA considering that the Philippine Supreme Court already declared its constitutionality.

Moreover, the Philippines remains as a security ally of the US which views EDCA as a tool to enhance this alliance. While Duterte will not put any obstacle to the EDCA’s implementation, his administration will avoid the previous administration’s excessive pro-Americanism of embracing Philippine-American alliance at the expense of Philippines-China political ties.”

The president has to play his cards well so as not to hurt any feelings from the diplomatic circle but the most important factor is his commitment to the Filipino people above everything else.

For now, we are in a wait and see mode but as far as President Duterte’s pronouncements on very crucial issues is concerned, the Filipinos are satisfied compared to the administration.

May God grant him wisdom to lead this country towards greatness and be respected by the rest of the world in the process.

Updated: 07/02/2016 — 20:12:04