It was a tumultuous 2016 for the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), as President Duterte seemed to conduct his foreign policy on the fly, while Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. tried to make sense of it all.
Since assuming office in June, Duterte has announced historic changes in the country’s foreign-policy direction. In his own words, he broke ties with the United States (US), threw expletives at the United Nations (UN) and flatly rejected the Tribunal’s favorable decision for the Philippines in the South China Sea.
Critics compared Duterte to Machiavelli, who would not blink upsetting the apple cart to get what he wants.
“I have realigned myself in your [China] ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to [President Vladimir] Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world—China, Philippines and Russia. It is the only way,” he said during his state visit to China in October last year.
“With that, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States. I have separated from them. So I will be dependent on you for all time. But do not worry. We will also help as you help us.”
Duterte made this earthshaking statement in Beijing, where he called a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally the US deteriorates.
Yasay, who is a political appointee, thus finds himself having to defend his boss, a job that calls for a seasoned diplomat with foreign-policy skills and unparalleled diplomatic savvy.
Yasay is a lawyer, a former chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission, and was Bangon Pilipinas Party’s vice-presidential bet in the 2010 Philippine elections, running alongside Eddie Villanueva. He accepted the offer of Duterte to join his Cabinet in May, shortly after the elections.
Yasay tried to explain the meaning of the President’s pronouncements in China, saying that what Duterte said was the result of a bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
“It was really a follow through in China, where we were able to sign numerous agreements,” Yasay said in a televised interview. “These are not self-executory. We want to make sure specific agreements and objectives would be executed so they can be implemented.”
In New York Yasay expressed his delight in seeing his old friends and colleagues, and recalling his time there during a Town Hall gathering in September 2016, at the Kalayaan Hall of the Philippine Center in Manhattan. He is a member of the Bar of the US Supreme Court, and the US Circuit Court of Appeals.
While in New York, he was managing director of the Maceda Philippine News from 1983 to 1987 and senior partner at two law firms—Maceda, Yasay & Tolentino, Esqs., and Yasay & De Castro, Esqs.—from 1979 to 1990.
The former Big Apple resident compared the Filipino community’s dynamics during his time to how it is today, and expressed his pleasure in the solidarity the Filipino-Americans show in increasing the visibility of the Philippines in the US.
He urged the more than 180 community members in attendance to give back to the country and be partners for social change to make a positive impact on their home country.
But the things Yasay actually wanted to say was not delivered during that Fil-Am gathering.
He said the United States has failed the Philippines in the eyes of Duterte and added that the country should end its subservience to the United States’s interests.
Yasay added that the US cannot even assure the Philippines that it will promptly come to the country’s defense under the existing military treaty and agreements.
This was an offshoot of the Scarborough Shoal incident in 2012 to 2013, when the US failed to support the Philippines against China’s superior naval forces.
A traditional Filipino fishing ground just 147 kilometers away from Zambales, China’s forceful occupation of Scarborough Shoal riles the Filipinos no end. The incident also has shown the limits of the US support for the country.
The Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) could only be activated if there is an attack on Philippine territory. The Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal were deemed outside of this defense perimeter.
In subsequent statements, the Philippines claimed that under a 2012 deal mediated by the US, China and the Philippines promised a bilateral withdrawal of their forces from the shoal until a deal over its ownership could be reached.
The Philippines complied with the agreement and withdrew. China, however, did not abide by the agreement and maintained its presence at the shoal, effectively militarizing it.
China claimed that no such deal had been reached, and that it was open to talking to the Philippines provided that non-regional entities, such as the US, stayed out of such talks.
By July 2012, the DFA said China had erected a barrier to the entrance of the shoal with fisheries law-enforcement command observed in the nearby disputed shoal.
It was under these circumstances that Duterte finds the MDT useless and, from then on, said he is aligning the country’s interests with China.
Meanwhile, the UN got Duterte’s goat after criticizing his war on drugs and the many death resulting in alleged extrajudicial killings and human-rights abuses.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has condemned President-elect Duterte’s apparent endorsement of extrajudicial killings.
Ban said in a statement then that he was extremely disturbed by Duterte’s recent remarks regarding attacks against Filipino journalists. The UN chief also pledged to continue to stand up for the rights of journalists.
Ban made the statement during the UN Correspondents Association Directory Reception following Duterte’s controversial remarks on the killing of corrupt journalists. Duterte countered that corrupt journalists were to be blamed if they were killed.
Prior to Ban’s statement, UN special rapporteurs criticized Duterte for his statements on the killing of journalists. Duterte defended himself, saying that their statements were based on the wrong premise. He also denied saying corrupt journalists deserved to die.
Before Ban issued his statement against Duterte, the incoming president had already criticized the UN for failing to stop killings in the Middle East and Africa. He also said the UN should not force its code of conduct on him.
The President heaped expletives on the UN for focusing its attention on the Philippines while it has failed to stop the bloodshed in Syria and other troubled spots in the Middle East.
Yasay tried to soften the blow. He said the Philippines continue to engage the international community within the framework of the guiding principles of the UN and according to its time-honored processes and protocols.
Yasay also said the UN and the Philippines must remain relevant and responsive to the needs of countries and peoples for enduring peace, security and stability.
Yasay added that the Philippine government is firm on its war against drugs, while also emphasizing its adherence to due process and strict observance of the rule of law. He said the government acts for the general welfare of the Filipinos.
Meanwhile, Duterte’s issues with the US were reignited when he was criticized in the press by President Barrack Obama for the many deaths that resulted in his unrelenting war against the drug menace engulfing the country.
As a result, Duterte has declared a pivot in Philippine foreign policy that will separate it from the US and bring it closer to China and Russia.
Earlier in his presidency, Duterte had exposed America’s carnage in the Philippine during its occupation of the country early in the 19th century.
At the East Asia Summit leaders’ meeting in September last year, Duterte veered off of his prepared remarks and launched into an emotional speech that included a reference to the 1906 massacre that took place near Jolo’s Bud Dajo Volcano in Mindanao.
During that incident, US troops, on the orders of Maj. Gen. Leonard Wood, killed over 600 Moros—including unarmed women and children—sparking outcry not just among the Moros, but even anti-imperialists in the US, such as Mark Twain.
He also indicated that he will reevaluate and, perhaps, rescind the 2014 US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows the Americans to rotate troops and assets through bases in the Philippines.
Shortly after his return from China, Duterte said one of the concessions he was able to get from Xi was to allow Zambales fishermen, who used to be shooed away from Scarborough Shoal by Chinese maritime ships, to again fish in the contested area.
As for putting the Tribunal’s decision on the back burner because the country, at this stage, could not deal with China militarily, Yasay admitted that the Philippines is helpless against a vastly superior force if it is, indeed, militarizing the Spratly Islands in the disputed West Philippine Sea.
Yasay was in Singapore last December to accompany Duterte on a state visit. There, Yasay said other countries like the US, Japan, and the European Union are concerned about the activities of China, which could impact on the freedom of navigation.
Yasay added that efforts have paid off as Filipino fishermen, for example, now have free access and are able to fish in the disputed waters.
Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. del Rosario reacted sternly to pronouncements by the current administration over the Philippines’s disposition in the South China Sea spat with China.
Del Rosario warned that three recent positions taken by the government, based on pronouncements by Duterte, could set back hard-won gains by the Philippines in batting for a rules-based solution in order to safeguard its maritime rights, especially given recent reports of China’s moves to militarize several of the disputed islands.
Del Rosario noted three key pronouncements by Duterte, followed up by Yasay, including:
The government’s position that it will not protest China’s latest blatant violations of international law by its deployment of missile systems in the South China Sea, setting aside the arbitral ruling, and unwinding of the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US.
Del Rosario said such utterances are being made after the country had taken a firm rules-based position to defend its territory.
It took the Aquino administration three years to get its complaint against Beijing’s encroachments in the West Philippine Sea processed for admission, heard and deliberated by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague before the July 12, 2016, ruling was finally handed down in favor of Philippine entitlements under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. The July 12 ruling invalidated China’s expansive claim over the disputed waters.
Yasay apparently sought to apply damage control by clarifying that the government was simply working hard on building confidence in its relations with China in order to make bilateral discussions easier somewhere down the road, where, in Manila’s view, the UN ruling would be a very helpful guide.
But for del Rosario, this meant that the Philippines was on its way to placing its future on the hands of China and has weakened the country’s stand for upholding the rule of law.
Amid this exchange of words come the surprising revelations that China has apparently installed significant defensive weapons on artificial islands in the Spratlys.
The latest images of the Spratlys, released by the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, showed a series of hexagonal structures now in place on each of seven islets that appear to be large anti-aircraft and close-in weapons systems.