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Exclusive by Raïssa Robles
This evening, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte practically accused President Benigno Aquino III and Senator Antonio Trillanes of selling out to China. He vowed to investigate the role played by both officials in the loss of Scarborough Shoal to China.
What Duterte hasn’t told his supporters, though – including his new-found senatorial candidate Rafael Alunan – is that in early October 2015, Duterte was visited by the newly-appointed Chinese Consul General Song Ronghua plus four other Chinese officials from the Chinese consulate in Cebu.
Chinese side reportedly offered to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal if Manila did not file document on dispute; Beijing denies any offer.
The visit came before the start of the filing for candidacy for the presidency and other national elective positions.
At that time of the visit, Duterte was still vacillating over running for president.
I’ve already written extensively about Aquino and Trillanes on the South China Sea issue. This is the first time I’m delving deeper into Duterte’s stance on the issue.
Senate Minority Floor Leader Juan Ponce Enrile later revealed that the go-between for this offer was Trillanes. Two sources also separately told me the same thing.
As a long-time observer of Philippine-Chinese relations, I found the high-level visit last October by Chinese envoys to a mayor down south highly unusual.
First, because ever since the standoff over Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China has implemented an almost total snub of Philippine officials, except during such occasions as China National Day (October 1) or the celebration of the Lunar New Year.
You can count the number of top level Filipino officials whom Chinese envoys still see outside of those two occasions. Among them is Vice President Jejomar Binay and his family.
When ConGen Song visited Duterte in Davao in early October,the Chinese official had newly arrived in the Philippines. Weeks later on October 21, ConGen Song would be wounded in a bizarre shooting of two of his staff at the consulate in Cebu during the celebration of a birthday party. (A retired Chinese consular official and his wife were tagged as the suspected perpetrators and hastily flown back to Beijing.)
What the photo of Song and Duterte suggests is that Mayor Duterte has an open pipeline to Chinese officials.
In contrast, Duterte has shunned talking to US Embassy officials. He has publicly disclosed that the US Embassy had also invited him to talk about his plans over the South China Sea dispute, but he hasn’t accepted the invitation.
“The American embassy would like to talk to me. I want to make this public because I feel lukewarm toward the United States.”
Duterte indicated that he has not yet found the time in his schedule to meet with US envoys.
Coupled with his meeting with Chinese officials, Duterte also disclosed last March that “a Chinese” had partly funded his political ads. His exact words to reporters were:
“May nagbayad niyan na Chinese sa initial ads ko.” He added, “Ayaw naman sabihin [kung sino siya].”
Which leads me to ask this question – is Duterte getting funding from a foreign Chinese corporation or the Chinese government? What I find really puzzling is that the tough-talking Mayor of Davao City, who has repeatedly warned that “blood would flow” if he ever gets elected President because he would be tough on criminals, seems all but ready to lie down and give up sovereignty over the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) claimed by the Philippines in the South China Sea.
I base this on the series of statements that Duterte has publicly stated on the issue.
I am assuming that as a candidate running for the highest office, he means what he says.
Duterte has publicly said the following:
On February 29, 2016, he asked China to build a railway in exchange for silence and inaction on the part of the Philippines: “Build us a railway just like the one you built in Africa and let’s set aside disagreements for a while.
Build us a rail for Mindanao, build us a railway from Manila to Bicol, I will be happy, let us not fight. Build us a railway because no nation on earth ever progressed without a railway.”
He also offered himself up to the Chinese as a sacrifice:
“If worse comes to worst, I will not waste the lives of Filipino soldiers, I will go to the boundary line, myself; maybe have someone take me there, and I will go there on my own with a jet ski, bringing along with me a flag and a pole and once I disembark, I will plant the flag on the runway and tell the Chinese authorities, ‘Kill me.’ Huwag na ang sundalo (Don’t kill the soldiers).
I’ll tell (the Chinese authorities)’kill me,’ because I also want to be a hero.”
On March 7, 2016, he said he did not believe in the Aquino government’s move to bring the conflict before an international arbitral tribunal because anyway, China will not abide by the ruling: “I have a similar position as China’s. I don’t believe in solving the conflict through an international tribunal. China has said it will not abide by whatever that tribunal’s decision will be. That’s the same case with me, especially if the ruling will be against the Philippines.”
Later, his own campaign team backtracked on his behalf but he hasn’t.
Duterte has also offered not to talk about ownership of the islands in exchange for joint exploration and economic perks: “Let’s not talk about ownership and I will not make noise about it. If you want, let’s do a joint exploration. Just give me my part [of the agreement] whatever it is, [it may be] a train system from Manila to Mindanao. For six years, I will shut up.”
On April 15, 2016, Duterte said he would start bilateral talks with China, or talk with China directly, on the issue.
He said, “We will not insist on the ownership for the simple reason that we cannot enforce our desire to own….There’s no conflict. You have joint exploration without giving up sovereignty. It’s like you told your neighbor, ‘let’s not talk about who owns that but let’s split the profits.’ There are legal formulas around the world recognized by the US, accepting that.”
To put it bluntly, as a Filipino I am shocked.
All these approaches – joint exploration, trains and aid for amicable relations with China, and bilateral negotiations with China – all these had been tried before and failed with disastrous results for the Philippines.
After President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo agreed to a joint seismic exploration of a portion of the South China Sea where China did not even have any claims, China put one over the Philippines. It started claiming even this portion.
President Arroyo also accepted a concessional loan from China to fund North Rail. When the South China Sea conflict erupted during the administration of President Benigno Aquino, Jr., China made the entire concessional loan due and demandable. This nearly affected the Philippine economy, President Aquino told me in an interview last year.
Before the arbitration, President Aquino also tried to explore joint exploration and bilaterals. But the negotiations bogged down over China’s insistence that any contract should be signed under its own laws, and not under Philippine law.
Duterte said on April 15: “We will not insist on the ownership for the simple reason that we cannot enforce our desire to own.”
This reminds me of what the late foreign Secretary Raul Manglapus told female overseas contract workers at the height of the Iraq-Kuwait war when they faced sexual assault – that they might as well lie back and enjoy the rape since anyway it can’t be prevented.
It’s intriguing that Duterte seems to be very confident that China will negotiate with him fair and square if he is the President. I really wonder what gives him that air of confidence over this very thorny issue.