Notwithstanding many positive gains resulting from the pivotal ASEAN summit in Manila, some have expressed dismay at President Duterte for supposedly failing to publicly "shame" China for its South China Sea activities.
These criticisms come amid what they call his capitulation to Chinese interests in the contested waters.
It comes as odd that many quarters in Manila, especially American-trained Filipino journalists, often like to inject the American position into the discussion, creating an alluring sense of conflict.
An Agence France Presse report in particular has been widely quoted by some publications known to be critical of the government position. It sums up the ASEAN summit as a Duterte failure to include in the Chairman's statement the arbitral ruling, quoting "unnamed diplomats,” even alleging that other ASEAN states are "frustrated" with the non-inclusion of this issue.
The same report, however, neglected to mention the larger context of the Aquino Administration’s failure to lobby the ASEAN to do the same.
What this reveals is that some newspapers lack the inclination, let alone the intelligence, to deal with this transnational issue. Instead, they allude to, yet hide the dichotomy between the West and ASEAN, preferring to parrot Western biases over the Philippines’ strategic interests.
After all, it makes for more entertaining, ergo saleable, reading.
And not only that. For in effect, these newspapers criticize the ASEAN as a “capitulationist,” even as they blame the President for his “failure” to seize the opportunity to shame China.
A closer look at ASEAN’s history, however, reveals that this tactic has never worked. The tack never even made it to official ASEAN communiqués or statements ever since the Philippines was said to have tried to lobby the regional bloc in 2013.
Failing to get ASEAN support for its position during the Aquino Administration, the government then filed the arbitration case at The Hague,hoping to get Western pressure to bear on China.
The Philippines won, as it turned out. But in the midst of the acrimonious proceedings, China proceeded with building its structures on the contested islands, moves that Aquino's defense officials didn't see fit to prevent.
What the ruling had gained for China, we know now in hindsight, was for her to fast track her construction activities, and to mobilize ASEAN support against the arbitral ruling. And true enough, subsequent ASEAN meetings were marked by silence on The Hague’s decision.
Meanwhile, thanks to our tenacious resolve to rub it in, our trade with China faltered, leading to drops in fruit exports and tourist arrivals from what arguably is the world’s second largest economy.
There is, then, nothing to gain for us from shaming China. Add to that is the fact that the West, for all its rhetoric on Democracy, will not back us up when push comes to shove if we insist on a hardline position.
Duterte was elected with this collective widsom in mind. His popularity attests to our tacit approval of this position, which calls for raising sensitive regional issues at the opportune time.
For all intents and purposes, we are still in the stage of confidence-building, regaining the trust that the arbitral ruling has unfortunately weakened.
And the President is not alone. Indonesian president Joko Widodo has echoed a similar track, calling for building and nurturing trust before a code of conduct can be established in the disputed waters.
In an interview with the South China Morning Post, Widodo said that “in the transitional period before we have the code, the building block of trust is very important. I stress, very important.”
After all, agreements made in haste and amid shame are only binding during the signing ceremonies. Mutual trust is needed to ensure adherence.
Perhaps these two street-smart leaders will pave the way for an eventual, mutually-binding resolution.