MANILA (PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) – Talk about great expectations.
Days before President Duterte’s fifth visit to China, his officials announced that the time has come for him to raise the country’s legal victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Mr Duterte himself stoked the import of the moment in a speech before Filipino-Chinese businessmen. “That arbitral ruling, we will talk about it. That’s why I’m going to China,” he said.
This made headlines. It would mark the first time, after all, since Mr Duterte took power three years ago that he would finally mention the unmentionable to his Chinese counterpart.
To recall, the President himself had instructed his administration to do a “soft landing” of The Hague ruling – essentially, to de-emphasise it and put it aside – in the early days of his administration, when the paramount thrust was to build closer relations with China.
So what did happen in Beijing? This was how presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo described the meeting: “The President unequivocally, assertively, but in a friendly manner, asserted the arbitral ruling. He said that the arbitral award is final, binding and not subject to appeal.”
“In response,” Panelo added, “President Xi reiterated his government’s position of not recognising the arbitral ruling as well as not budging from its position.”
Then the two leaders moved on to topics of how to “further improve relations,” including pushing for joint oil and gas exploration activities in the West Philippine Sea.
And – that was basically it. Mr Duterte appeared to have raised the matter fleetingly, Mr Xi swatted it away, and the issue went right back to where it was before – on the shelf, in the back-burner, once again to be ignored and left untackled.
No reports have emerged of any substantive discussion taking place between the two leaders on the single monumental issue that has ratcheted tensions to flash point levels in the South China Sea, namely China’s sweeping – and plain baseless, according to The Hague – claims to the area, and how such assertions, backed by provocative behaviour such as the militarisation of seized islands and repeated intrusions into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, are trampling on the sovereignty and interests of the country Mr Duterte was representing in Beijing.
Was it all for show? It now appears, from Panelo’s own telling, that Mr Duterte did not really plan on asserting the country’s sovereignty with his Chinese friend. Because, flabbergastingly, he was even said to be apologetic about the whole matter.
According to Mr Duterte’s own spokesperson: “The President said, ‘I didn’t want to alarm you with what I’m about to raise because of your problem in Hong Kong, which is why I’m asking for forgiveness but I need to say this because I promised my countrymen.'”
Asking for forgiveness? For what?
Shouldn’t it have been the other way around – Mr Xi expressing regret for the innumerable times by now that China had shown contempt and shabby behaviour toward its neighbour, from its harassment of Filipino fishermen to the swarming of its maritime militia around Philippine-held Pagasa island to the multiple instances of trespassing by its warships in Philippine waters (their identification systems turned off to evade Philippine monitoring), to mention just a few of its more recent egregious actions?
In his column in this paper last Sunday, Randy David took note of the empty piece of theatre that happened and described it as “ritualism” – “the act of going through the motions of expected behaviour without actually believing in the goal that it is supposed to serve.”
Indeed, asked if Mr Duterte intended to do more – say, press the Philippines’ position more forcefully by reasserting the matter with Xi-Panelo said: “No more. We have already raised it. We will not raise it repeatedly.”
From the body language of the two leaders, it was clear that they had reached an agreement to completely disregard the arbitral ruling and continue as friends with benefits.
Mr Duterte’s fifth pilgrimage to Beijing was supposed to be, at last, a moment of courage for the Philippines – and the redeeming twist to his foreign-policy pivot to China, when all the kowtowing of the previous years would now have gained the Philippines better positioning power at the table.
Alas, the folly of that stance was what ended up on full display instead, with the Great Leader subjecting the vassal state once again to ritual humiliation, and Mr Duterte’s administration dutifully taking note by vowing never to irritate the master again.