SOME curious friends have asked me how I might have advised President Duterte to handle China and his critics, had he chosen to ask me in place of—or together with—my good friend and former Cabinet and Senate colleague Juan Ponce Enrile, who told him on May 17, 2021 to simply ignore all his critics and just trust history.
It is a pointless question, for reasons that are well known to many. Although I had served as Marcos’s press secretary, presidential spokesman and minister of information from 1969 until 1980—-six years before the EDSA revolt—I am a Duterte critic who became a “proscribed columnist” in March 2019 after writing a controversial story on Duterte’s state of health. For that reason, I would not be the right person to ask to a public briefing like Enrile’s.
Still, Duterte’s handling of the presidency, not just China, and Enrile’s advice to him at his weekly public address to the nation are matters of national import. The Duterte-Enrile consultation happened at the height of Duterte’s challenge to a debate with former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio on the West Philippine Sea. The proposed debate fell through after Duterte admitted he had made a mistake in proposing it, since as sitting president, he cannot be debating with a private citizen, even if he happened to be a former Supreme Court justice.
He assigned his spokesman Harry Roque to debate with Carpio instead. And Carpio quickly honored Duterte’s turnaround by proposing that the Filipino comedian Vice Ganda debate with Roque instead. I never heard whether or not Vice Ganda accepted.
At the outset, I was afraid it wasn’t going to be much of a debate at all. To begin with, the two sides were not evenly matched, as their academic credentials amply show. Moreover, Carpio had spent time, energy and possibly money to do a well-researched presentation of his position; it is all on Youtube. Duterte, on the other hand, has not engaged the issue intellectually but has limited himself to his usual incoherent rant and grunts.
Still, I was hoping we could evince from Duterte some thoughts on what a president should do—especially one as reputedly tough as he is—when a big and unruly giant bullies its way into his country’s territorial waters and exclusive economic zone (EEZ). I am afraid we may have lost that chance forever.
This is Duterte’s loss, and it is all self-inflicted. He challenged Carpio to a verbal duel, but tried to frame the issue to his obvious advantage: under whose presidency did we lose to China Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012? Duterte’s, or Fidel Ramos’s and Benigno Aquino III’s? Then he backed out after Carpio clarified the issue of the debate.
Carpio said the real issue was Duterte’s claim that China “is in possession of the South China” and that the Philippines is powerless to assert its sovereign rights in the Spratlys, even after the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague had (in July 2016) upheld those rights under the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and declared that China’s claim, arising from the so-called “nine-dash line,” had no legal basis.
At this time the prevailing sentiment in the social media appeared to go against Duterte; pressure was building up for him to take a firm position against China’s continued incursions inside the Philippines’ territorial waters and EEZ. He had to find a way out. So he invited private citizen Enrile to his weekly televised public address to the nation and asked him to spread his own views on China into the record.
JPE was more than happy to oblige. With the Cabinet and the nation as his audience, JPE felt free to interrupt the President anytime and was hardly interrupted by him at all. Not even Marcos, who had given Enrile so much power as his defense secretary until he led the 1986 EDSA military revolt, had, at the height of their shared power, shown him so much personal esteem. JPE had Duterte virtually eating out of his hands.
He told Duterte “to do everything to avoid irritating China… Only history will judge you, and I think history will judge you very well. If I were in your place, I would’ve done the same thing. What else can a president of this country do under the present national circumstances? You can shout, you can beat your breast, you can raise your fist. Without any backup, that’s just noise.”
Enrile told Duterte to ignore his critics. “Pabayaan mo na lang sila… After all, Mr. President, you are only responsible to the Filipino people, you are not responsible to any specific person for your foreign policy.”
Duterte described Enrile as “one of the best minds of our generation” and found everything he said music to his ears. He decided to declare all his China critics “irrelevant” after listening to his guest. Nothing the critics will say after this will ever disturb him again. That evening, he must have slept like a babe or with the sweetest dreams. But like a man suffering from some strange disease, Duterte needs and deserves a second opinion.
This is an attempt to provide that second opinion.
At 97, JPE is indeed one of the more durable minds of his generation. His memory is intact, and he could recite Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat like a gold-medalled contestant on stage. But he is, at best, only half-right in his advice to the embattled president. A Filipino president’s duty is not to a foreign power but to his country and his people. Although he is not supposed to antagonize any nation, near or far, big or small, he must be prepared to risk even that if it is the only way to protect and defend the sacred and inviolable rights and interests of his country and people. He must never find it easy to surrender his highest ideals and principles, if ever and whenever they are threatened.
When the Japanese invaded the Philippines after Pearl Harbor, there were those whose immediate impulse was to collaborate with the invaders. On the other hand, Supreme Court Chief Justice (and acting President) Jose Abad Santos of Pampanga, Wenceslao Vinzons of Camarines Norte, Josefa Llanes Escoda of Ilocos Norte and others gave up their lives rather than capitulate to the aggressors. History has honored them well rather than the others. So, instead of saying Duterte should do everything “not to irritate China,” I would rather he did everything not to alienate and lose the trust and confidence of his own people.
Even if we had our own nuclear arsenal, which we don’t, and our oceans swarmed with our own nuclear ships and submarines, which do not exist, no right-thinking Filipino would want to consider war with China or with any other country as a policy option. It would be a sure ticket to our nuclear annihilation. But choosing not to assert our rights vis-a-vis China, when they are being violated, for fear of offending her, is tantamount to surrendering those rights unconditionally without our having been atom-bombed into submission. A Filipino president must be able to assert our rights without the use of bellicose language or behavior, but with firm dignity and honor, so that even the mightiest hegemon would be compelled to respect our non-negotiable position if we had one.
We cannot afford to believe that war is the only likely consequence of opposing Chinese incursions into our EEZ and territorial waters. This is unfair not only to ourselves but even to China herself, who may be open to a more reasonable position. As China prepares to become the world’s leading power, she may want to be seen as a more responsible and constructive power able to live in harmony and peace with her puniest or weakest neighbors. Small as we are, we could be the one puny neighbor that could shoehorn China into occupying that role. Of course, this requires sophistication and statecraft, rather than the crass methods and manners of thugs and brigands.
Duterte may ignore his critics when they talk in their sleep, but he should listen to them even when they are wrong. Marcos, whom Duterte reportedly admired, was never afraid to do so. If you want to rule men, you must learn to listen. When asked what gift God could possibly give him, the wisest of all kings, Solomon, chose to ask for a “listening heart.” For those who want to wield power, listening to others helps to ensure civility in public life, rationality of public discourse, and the possibility of avoiding, despite all difficulties, unnecessary dead ends, stalemates and pitfalls.
In foreign policy as well as in everything else, we cannot always appeal to the judgment of history alone. As John Maynard Keynes famously put it, “In the long run we are all dead.” We must ever be mindful of the red lines in the Constitution, the unavoidable tug of moral conscience, and the constant pressure of what ought to be at all times. Nor can a president be accountable to “the people” alone without being accountable to any particular persons. “We, the Filipino people,” are a reality, not an abstraction. But we can hardly think of the people as anything unless we first put faces into them and see our loved ones, our friends and even ourselves in them. A president who fails to understand these things is bound to fail; he can hardly function at all.