Embracing the dragon without cutting ties with longtime friends: Philippine Daily Inquirer columnist

Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte listening during a visit to an affected community in the city of Tuguegarao that was hit by Super Typhoon Haima.
Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte listening during a visit to an affected community in the city of Tuguegarao that was hit by Super Typhoon Haima. PHOTO: EPA

Narciso Reyes Jr.

Philippine Daily Inquirer

With stinging words in Beijing against our top ally America, President Duterte has taken the Philippines to a foreign policy adventure that carries with it immense socioeconomic import and potentially dangerous geopolitical repercussions.

If he goes beyond catchy rhetoric and actually sets in motion policies and events that will cut the Philippines' deep and complex ties with America, a paradigm shift that will place it firmly in the political-military orbit of such countries as the hermit regime of North Korea, Laos, Cambodia, and some African countries, things will never be the same.

For us, getting out of one orbit and into another means, among others, that America, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and most Asean countries would no longer be our close allies.

The same for Australia and New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Philippines would thus become increasingly a vassal of China, meekly singing its tune and faithfully following its instructions.

If the President were really serious in separating from America, "economically and militarily," far from pursuing an "independent foreign policy," this strange pivot to China would mean catastrophic events, such as the exodus of US firms from our shores, as well as US-dependent BPOs which employ some 1.2 million Filipinos, and losing our biggest export market (next to Japan). And we could also kiss goodbye our preferential trade benefits from America and the European Union worth tens of billions of dollars.

The modest US$24 billion (S$33.5 billion) worth of loans and pledged investments from the China state visit (which actually pales in comparison to the $46 billion that Pakistan got from Beijing in 2015) must be weighed against those immense, unquantifiable losses that transcend economic and security concerns.

Furthermore, by not defending our exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea (i.e., the Reed Bank which has estimated gas reserves worth at least $180 billion), it has, in effect, been undermined in China's favor, through what Dean Mel Sta. Maria termed as losing sovereign rights through "estoppel."

This willful violation of the Constitution, which mandates the protection of the country's EEZ-which is many times larger than our landmass-is "ground for impeachment," Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has warned.

Just as ominous, in the event of war between China and Japan or between China and America, the Philippines, being firmly in China's camp, is assumed to be a willing host to Chinese military forces, particularly nuclear-armed submarines. Those Chinese forces would serve as magnets for pre-emptive or retaliatory nuclear strikes by our former allies (Japan and America).

It seems the President and his advisers have not been reading world events and China correctly.

Dazzled by the impressive, gleaming cities of the Middle Kingdom, they failed to see the other side of China beyond its narrow crescent of prosperity on its coasts: a billion people still living in impoverished conditions at less than $3.50 a day, shuttered malls, real estate bubbles, ghost towns, rising unemployment and discontent and the resurfacing of regional animosities.

The paradox of "separation" is obvious when one considers the massive fact that China and America are entangled in a strategic accommodation, each dependent on the other for important economic security benefits. China holds in its hands more than $1 trillion worth of US bonds, and America is China's largest export market.

By pursuing a simplistic and self-defeating zero-sum game in foreign affairs, Mr. Duterte deprives the Philippines of pragmatic, diversified gains in an interdependent world economy. Let us improve our relations with China, by all means, but this can be done without cutting vital ties with our longtime friends. The Japanese have an unforgettable term for this existential cut: seppuku, or ritual suicide.

^ The writer is the author of a book and former diplomat.