Cozying up to the US


    THE body language of President Duterte tends to show that his “independent foreign policy” can swing both ways in relation to the two big powers in our midst: the United States of America and China. The President’s recent moves in his capacity as chief architect of the nation’s foreign policy show that he will not countenance overbearing friends as much as he will despise nascent enemies.

    Duterte’s series of diplomatic moves during this COVID-19 pandemic seem to favor the US, although he is not entirely veering away from China. The first, and most relevant indication of this small pivot is when he backtracked on the issue of Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) which could have been junked last August after the lapse of the regulation period following the notice sent to the US by the Department of Foreign Affairs cancelling the accord. Duterte’s reason for turning around is the two nations’ common fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

    ‘From now on, the rabble-rousers of the Left will have to burn their placards claiming Duterte is a stooge of China.’

    Second indicator is that Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin did not get as much as a slap on the wrist from the President when Locsin tussled with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian over the twin issues of Philippine Air Force fly-bys near the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea and the ban imposed by the US on Chinese companies involved in construction works (read: artificial islands) in those waters. Locsin said he plans to strongly recommend a similar ban on Chinese firms involved in joint venture projects with Filipinos, if they are found to have participated in SCS reclamation projects.

    We look at the third and the fourth indicators of Duterte’s nascent pivot to the US as one, although this does not necessarily mean that he is abandoning the friendship and cooperation his administration has nurtured towards China. Most noticeable is the extra-warm sendoff he gave to outgoing US Ambassador Sung Kim, who deserves our praise for working so hard in helping the Philippines in this time of public health crisis and being so amiable even in the face of critics and protesters.

    The Chief Executive praised Ambassador Sung Kim for his contributions in strengthening the alliance between the two countries, during the envoy’s farewell call at the Palace on Monday. Kim will end his three-year tour of duty in the Philippines, which started in November 2016. The President conferred on him the Order of Sikatuna with the rank of Datu.

    The Palace likewise cited “important milestones” in the country’s ties with the United States such as the return of the Balangiga Bells in December 2018. The two countries also expanded cooperation in various areas, especially in defense and security, trade and investments, and people-to-people exchanges.

    The fourth and last indicator that we see was not announced officially — but we believe it is also during this farewell call that Duterte informed Kim that he is pardoning US Marine John Scott Pemberton, whose release order from the Olongapo City court had been opposed by many sectors. Pemberton was serving time for killing transgender woman Jennifer Laude in 2014.

    Executive clemency and pardon are exclusive powers that go with the presidency, and no one can question it, as Duterte correctly pointed out. But his personal reason for granting the Pemberton pardon is suspect: Duterte said government officials (the Bureau of Corrections? the justice and defense departments?) committed errors in computing the good conduct time allowance to be granted to Pemberton. This idea occurred to the President while conscious that Pemberton is serving time inside Camp Aguinaldo, alone and without mingling with other prisoners except with his American and Filipino soldier-guards.

    Duterte even allowed a little sermon on officials who cannot count the days of Pemberton’s GCTA, and thus had been “unfair” to the guy. How about the deceased Jennifer Laude, the Laude family, the LGBTQ community, the ordinary victims of rowdy Americans in Clark, Subic and Zamboanga — had Pemberton been fair to them?

    All these lead us to believe that Pemberton’s pardon was a gift to the American ambassador during his farewell visit at the Palace, but that is par for the course in any diplomatic occasion, and thus understandable. From now on, the rabble-rousers of the Left will have to burn their placards claiming Duterte is a stooge of China.