While this prompted certain quarters to shoot back that the President should stop sounding like the guns of Navarone, we can also see the point of the frustrated administration officials. These problems arise only in open societies where the government does not muzzle the press.
Dirty Rody’s macho / nationalistic hackles were raised apparently by reports from Washington that Obama would not “pull any punches” in raising human rights concerns during his talk with Duterte in Vientiane. The statement, given by Obama’s press secretary Josh Earnest, was in response to a question from the press.
Obama, Earnest stressed, is known for his “willingness to speak bluntly” – a description that must have seemed like waving a red flag in front of the even more blunt Philippine President.
The White House statement did sound like an announced lecture ahead of the planned bilateral meeting. It was already a statement of concern – or a reiteration of previous White House statements – about the continuing killings in Dirty Rody’s vicious drug war.
President Duterte is correct in pointing out that as leader of a sovereign state, which stopped being a US colony over 60 years ago, he should not be lectured upon by anyone, and other countries should stop interfering in Philippine internal affairs.
He might be pleased to know that such sentiments are shared by the Chinese in dealing with the US and other free states. Washington must get used to other countries especially in the developing world increasingly expressing similar sentiments. It’s been called the rise of the rest, and it’s irreversible, even if the US continues to be the lone superpower for another 100 years.
It won’t stop the US – and other Western democracies, for that matter – from expressing their opinions on many issues, but they may have to find new approaches in sending the message to the intended recipients.
This exchange of views between the treaty allies, however, could have been handled through diplomatic channels. Earnest could have been less blunt about Obama’s agenda for the talks. Duterte, for his part, could have contained his irritation and dispatched his diplomats to send word, diplomatically, that if he felt lectured upon during the bilaterals, he would bite Obama’s head off – or something like that. This is what diplomats are paid to do – to tell each other, “screw you,” and then toast to their countries’ enduring friendship.
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Obama, during his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou, irked his hosts anew by calling on Beijing to respect international rules and to stop bullying smaller countries including the Philippines and Vietnam. That’s right, he mentioned the Philippines, which must have added to his vexation over the latest “colorful statements” of the “colorful guy” in Davao City.
Yesterday in Vientiane, Obama stressed that America’s commitment to Southeast Asia would endure.
Meanwhile, in Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, Philippine security officials yesterday reported spotting at least 10 Chinese ships on patrol. That was Beijing’s response to President Rody’s call on behalf of Filipino fishermen. Xi doesn’t lecture his counterparts; he just deploys his forces to disputed waters.
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That said, the Duterte administration is taking the prudent tack in dealing with China. After that resounding victory before the UN-backed arbitration court, which invalidated China’s entire nine-dash-line maritime claim, the Duterte administration has refrained from gloating or rubbing it in.
The hard part is making Beijing accept the ruling without too much loss of face, and without fomenting unrest within the ranks of its military. Acceptance is not going to happen overnight. The Philippines, being the initiator of the arbitration, must lead in the effort to persuade Beijing to abide by the ruling.
At the same time, however, President Rody has also repeatedly stressed that any bilateral negotiation with Beijing must respect the arbitral court’s decision. The ruling, as Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. explained, allows the Philippines to negotiate from a position of strength.
“The resolution of this dispute will rest on our ability to continue talking,” Yasay told the recent Japan-ASEAN Media Forum in Manila. “We feel that we have to give China room to rethink its position… for as long as we continue talking, nobody will take aggressive action.”
Some quarters say China is never going to budge from its hardline position. On the other hand, I consider it a positive sign that since Duterte won the presidency, he has been visited at least five times by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua. Beijing, according to diplomatic sources, was also pleased with the designation of a former president, Fidel Ramos, as special envoy to break the ice between the two countries following the arbitral ruling.
It’s no secret that President Rody holds Ramos in high regard. Maybe FVR should be tapped as presidential adviser on diplomatic matters. Aides say no one can tell President Duterte what to say or do. He needs an elder mentor he will actually listen to, who can give him lessons ASAP on statesmanship.
The president of the Philippines must show the world the best of the Filipino. FVR can also let loose crisp PIs, but you don’t hear the profanity in public. Pinoys can’t be regarded by the world as rude motormouths.
It’s sound foreign policy to be friends with the world. But some countries are friendlier than others, sharing common values with freedom-loving Filipinos, while some threaten our national interest. President Rody should be able to distinguish one from the other.
Being a loose cannon may entertain a certain type of domestic audience, but the world stage calls for leaders to be on their best behavior. Being the new ASEAN chair for the 50th anniversary of the grouping in 2017, President Duterte must make the nation proud.