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Uncle Sam or Xi Dada: A question of trust

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One of the most quoted maxims in politics is: “There are no permanent friends, no permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” But regardless of whether you’re dealing with a friend or an enemy, the one that could earn dividends is the mantra: “Don’t burn your bridges because you’ll never know when you would need them.” American presidents since the beginning of the 19th century were good at following this mantra. Not only did they not burn bridges, they built bridges for their former enemies. Yes, indeed. Look at post-World War II Germany and Japan.

At the end of World War II, the U.S. initiated the Marshall Plan – officially the European Recovery Program – to aid Western Europe from the ravages of war. More than $12 billion (approximately $120 billion in current dollar value) were given in the 1950s and 1960s. The reunification of West Germany and the former communist state of East Germany in 1990 created Europe’s biggest economic power. Today, the U.S. continues to maintain a strong military force to protect Germany and 25 other European countries – collectively the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) — from the threat of Russian aggression.

In the case of Japan, the American occupation of Japan provided a smooth transition to economic recovery. With the presence of American bases and troops, Japan allocated only one percent of her Gross Domestic Product (GDP) for her self-defense force; thus, giving her more to spend on economic recovery. By the 1960s, Japan became the world’s second largest economy after the U.S.

Today, Germany and Japan join the ranks of America’s most dependable allies. Germany, together with her World War II adversaries — United Kingdom and France — form the bulwark of NATO while Japan partners with the U.S. and South Korea in keeping China and North Korea at bay.

*Rise of China

With the rise of China as the world’s second largest economy after the U.S. – displacing Japan who moved down to third place — there is a great deal of anxiety among her Asian neighbors who are fearful of China’s imperialistic design in the South and East China Seas. Thus far, Vietnam and the Philippines have lost territories to China. In 1974, China grabbed the Paracel Islands after engaging Vietnam in a fierce naval battle. In 1994, China occupied the Mischief Reef, which is within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), and built permanent fortifications on it.

In 2012, China took possession of the Philippines’ Scarborough Shoal after four months of standoff between Chinese and Philippine coast guards. To break the impasse, the U.S. mediated for both parties to withdraw their vessels from the shoal. Both countries agreed. Well, the Philippines withdrew her ships but China didn’t. Since then, China cordoned the only opening to the shoal’s lagoon; thus, preventing Philippine ships and fishing vessels from entering what was once Philippine territory.

In 2013, China started building artificial islands on seven reefs in the Spratly archipelago in the South China Sea (SCS). When the U.S. confronted China about those artificial islands, China said she had no intention of militarizing them. However, satellite photos show runways, harbors, and structures that appear to be missile emplacements. When asked again, China said that she has the right to build and install defense equipment on her sovereign territory.

*Can China be trusted?

The representations that China made when she was building the artificial islands were different from what she’s saying now; she’s fortifying these islands to defend them from external forces. It manifests China’s propensity to lie. In other words, China can’t be trusted.

In a survey conducted by Social Weather Stations (SWS) in the Philippines last September, 76% of the respondents had “much trust” in the U.S. compared to 22% about China. What is interesting is that the survey was conducted at a time when Digong was vociferously expressing his anti-American tirades.

Duterte continued his verbal assaults on the U.S., particularly against then-President Barack Obama whom he called “son of a whore” and told him to “go to hell.” But Duterte seemed to be attracted to then President-elect Donald Trump who talked to him on the phone telling him that he was doing the “right thing” in his war on drugs.

As an expression of goodwill towards Trump, Duterte sent his Communications Secretary Martin Andanar and National Security Adviser Gen. Hermogenes Esperon to attend Trump’s inaugural last January 20. Although there were no news reports of the two attending the inaugural ball and having a seat at the VIP section at the inauguration, they were at the pre-inaugural reception at the Philippine Embassy, which was mostly attended by Filipino-Americans.

*Change in Duterte

Something must have happened since then because Duterte seemed to have a change in his attitude towards Uncle Sam.

Recently, it was reported in the news that Duterte had given Defense Secretary Gen. Delfin Lorenzana the go-ahead for the U.S. military to build barracks and fuel depots in designated Philippine bases where American forces are allowed to temporarily station under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). This is a far cry from last month when Duterte threatened to terminate EDCA. He said then that he didn’t want his country to get entangled if a Sino-American war erupted. Lorenzana identified three bases where the U.S. is supposedly bringing weapons, including Palawan, which is just within 100-200 miles from the militarized artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago in the SCS.

*Realignment

Obviously, Duterte is realigning with the U.S., just a few months after he announced during his state visit to China that he will “separate” from the U.S. His 180-degree about-face surprised the Duterte watchers.

Last February 5, Duterte announced that he had terminated the peace talks with leaders of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) and the National Democratic Front (NDF). He also lifted the “ceasefire” with the New People’s Army (NPA). In a media conference, Duterte said that the CPP-NDF-NPA triumvirate was making unreasonable demands including freeing hundreds of prisoners whom NPA claims to be “political prisoners.” Duterte had initially released 18 prisoners but their number was increased to 23 upon the insistence. After releasing them, the rebels demanded the release of another 400 prisoners. It was then that Duterte ordered the arrest of jailed leftist leaders who were allowed to join the peace talks.

Duterte then branded the CPP-NDF-NPA as a terrorist group, which didn’t dwell too well with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It’s a big blow to Xi whom the Chinese people affectionately call Uncle Xi or Xi Dada. Xi had expected Duterte to turn the Philippines into a vassal of China and terminate EDCA including the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA). And with a navy without warships and an air force without warplanes, the Philippines would helplessly be at the mercy of a militant China. What a shame!

At the end of the day, the defensive umbrella that Uncle Sam provides over the Philippines would ensure that the country remains sovereign and independent. Unlike Xi Dada, Uncle Sam has no imperialistic design in the Philippines. However, America has vast national security interests in the Indo-Asia-Pacific region and thus has to remain a power in the region to keep the strategic shipping lanes in the SCS and other bodies of international water open to all nations.

Ultimately, it all comes down to a question of trust. Whom can Duterte trust: Uncle Sam or Xi Dada? (PerryDiaz@gmail.com)




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