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Trump’s Russia, Duterte’s China

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Greg B. Macabenta

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PHILIPPINES-ASEAN-SUMMIT
US President Donald J. Trump (L) talks to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) before the opening ceremony of the 31st Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in Manila on November 13, 2017. World leaders are in the Philippines' capital for two days of summits. / AFP

Siegfried and Roy had a long-running and very successful act at the Mirage Casino in Las Vegas. The act featured two white tigers that did marvelous tricks at the crack of the trainers’ whips. Then one day, one of the tigers attacked Roy and mauled him within an inch of his life. The act has since been canceled and the rogue tiger has been put to sleep.

The obvious lesson here is that no matter how masterful you believe you are as an animal trainer, you never know when a wild beast will turn on you. That lesson holds true not just for those training tigers but also for heads of state who fancy themselves good at dealing with the Russian bear and the Chinese dragon.

American media and the US intelligence community still cannot fathom the relationship that President Donald Trump has or wants to develop with Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Since his election to the presidency and up to his visit to Asia to attend the ASEAN Summit, Trump has spoken through both sides of his mouth on the issue of Russian meddling in the last US presidential elections, in spite of its implications of national security.

In response to questions by media about his stand on allegations of Russia’s interference with the very foundation of American democracy, the US intelligence community’s findings that confirmed this interference, and Putin’s denial of the allegation, Trump said that he believed Putin.

In the next breath, he also said that he believed the US intelligence service.

Huh???

On the other hand, political observers and concerned citizens are watching with growing concern the seeming passivity towards China of the notoriously pugnacious and foul-mouthed President Rodrigo Duterte. This, in spite of China’s undisguised encroachment on parts of the South China Sea being claimed by the Philippines.

Everyone who has appeared to cross Duterte has gotten an earful of invectives, including the Pope himself — everyone but Chinese President Xi Jinping.

If Trump, in his own “Trumpish” way, has been trying to “strike a balance” in his attitude towards Putin and America’s intelligence community, he promptly torpedoed that by calling the latter “political hacks.”

That has not been the first time Trump has spoken unflatteringly about America’s intelligence service, or about everyone and anyone whose views he does not agree with, including leaders of the Republican Party.

On the other hand, in spite of overwhelming evidence of Russian meddling with the US elections — not to mention Putin’s hand in the Syrian conflict and other sensitive international issues — Trump has avoided saying anything against the Russian leader.

This has led the media, the political opposition, and skeptical Americans to speculate that Putin has something on Trump or that the issue of “collusion” between the Russians and Trump’s campaign team will eventually lead Special Counsel Robert Mueller to the front steps of the White House and all the way to the Oval Office.

Yet, Trump’s apologists blithely argue that Trump’s approach is a practical and realistic way of dealing with Putin, the better to get his cooperation in solving the Syrian crisis, eliminating ISIS and cooling down other hot spots around the world.

Ranking former officials of the US intelligence services have bluntly described this approach as naïve.

In the case of Duterte, “military blackmail” appears to be the reason for his attitude towards China, which his critics have characterized as passive-to-meek-to-fawning.

Duterte has not been embarrassed to admit that going to war with China would mean total destruction for the Philippines. Never mind that this renders meaningless the words of the Philippine national anthem that vows, “Aming ligaya na pag may mangaapi, ang mamatay nang dahil sa iyo (the original English lyrics went, But it is glory, ever when thou art wronged for us thy sons to suffer and die).”

But Duterte and his apologists do not end there. They unabashedly cite the carrot and stick analogy, pointing out that belligerence towards China, which they attribute to the administration of President Benigno S. C. Aquino III, only got Philippine exports banned, while making friends with the Chinese has generated economic benefits.

Early this year, after a three-day visit to China, Duterte announced that he had wangled several investment and financing agreements amounting to $24 billion — $15 billion in investments and $9 billion in terms of credit facilities. According to him, the bonanza would generate at least two million jobs.

Duterte further declared that, as part of a $10-billion investment package, “China has promised us, for all their goodness…to build two bridges over the Pasig River. Free. Gratis. And I bow in gratitude.”

One social media pundit pointed out that the loan comes with “strings attached,” to which a kibitzer quipped, “You mean, a string of islands attached.”

However, like Trump, Duterte has also spoken through both sides of his mouth in explaining his stand on the South China Sea issue. He has repeatedly insisted that he would not give up an inch of Philippine territory in his dealings with China.

Yet, after being cautioned that China was covetously eyeing more and more Philippine territory, while ostensibly setting up an environment monitoring station in the area, Duterte replied that it could not be prevented from doing so, besides which the Philippines could not afford to go to war with China.

Assuming that “the Philippines is no match to China militarily,” Senior Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio suggested five things Duterte could do, first of which was to “file a strong protest” against China’s activities.

“This is the least that the President should do,” said Carpio.

But the most stinging advice that Carpio gave was: “Avoid any act, statement or declaration that expressly or impliedly waives Philippine sovereignty to any Philippine territory in the West Philippine Sea. This will preserve for future generations of Filipinos their national patrimony in the West Philippine Sea. Any statement that the Philippines cannot stop China from building on Scarborough Shoal actually encourages China to build on Scarborough Shoal.”

Just as Trump’s intelligence branch do not buy his fawning attitude towards Putin, Duterte’s Defense chief, retired Major General Delfin Lorenzana has expressed doubts about China’s supposedly harmless “innocent passage” through Philippine territory, as rationalized by Duterte.

Said Lorenzana in a media interview, “Alam mo naman ‘yung innocent passage, Point A to Point B. Napakabagal eh. Tapos tumitigil sa isang lugar. Magtagal doon ng ilang araw. Lipat naman sa kabilang lugar. So that is not innocent passage (We know innocent passage is from Point A to Point B. But the Chinese ship was very slow. It was stopping in one area to stay there for a few days. And then it would move to another area),” he said.

Duterte has dismissed these apprehensions as alarmist. Describing the Philippines’ rosy relations with China, he chimed, “Things are getting great our way. Why spoil it?”

One astute observer, commenting on the attitudes of Trump and Duterte, described the former as “devious, with something to hide” and the latter as “naïve, with a yellow streak.”

Then he asked the rhetorical question: Which attitude is better? To which he also gave the answer: “NOTA. None of the above.”

 

Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.

gregmacabenta@hotmail.com

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