'Always wait and see if Duterte will match words with actions'

2ND KATIPUNAN CONFERENCE. Experts on China gather at an academic conference at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City on October 21, 2016. Rappler photo

2ND KATIPUNAN CONFERENCE. Experts on China gather at an academic conference at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City on October 21, 2016.

Rappler photo

MANILA, Philippines – University of the Philippines (UP) professors closely following President Rodrigo Duterte's pivot to China are on a wait-and-see mode, if and how actions will match Duterte's pronouncements on "separation from the US." 

"In diplomacy, you have statements and you have actions. When the actions start supporting the statement, that's when I guess you need to take these things seriously," UP Asian Center professor Aileen Baviera told Rappler on Friday, October 21, on the sidelines of the 2nd Katipunan Conference, an academic conference in UP Diliman that tackled geopolitical developments in the region.

UP College of Law professor Jay Batongbacal is hoping the president is only posturing to China – "a grand performance with no substance."

"I would hope that it is posturing, of course, because it is easier said than done. It (separation) has very serious policy implications that cannot be made up for by $13-billion promises. That is all it is at this point. It is just a promise," said Batongbacal. 

The two professors were sought for comment on Duterte's October 20 pronouncement during his state visit to Beijing about his "separation" from the country's longest treaty ally, the US, "both in military and economic" aspects which, to them, connoted that he was going to revoke treaty alliances.

Duterte then clarified early Saturday, October 22, that he would not cut ties with the US. But asked whether or not the Philippines' shift in foreign policy would affect defense agreements with the US like the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the President said, "Maybe."

Duterte's latest remarks on the US prompted senators to remind him that it is the Senate that can end treaties.

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario also called Duterte's policy on the US a "national tragedy."

Duterte in his latest speech early Saturday also said he would consult the military about potential moves. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had earlier said Duterte has been making these pronouncements without even consulting him. 

Batongbacal told Rappler that "separation" is a strong word. "If we look at the dictionary, that is what separation means. You cut off from the US," he said.

Militarily, Batongbacal said "separation" means abrogating the treaties with the US such as the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) and the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), and agreements like EDCA.

The MDT binds the two countries to come to each other's aid if their sovereignty is threatened. The VFA allows rotational presence of US troops in the Philippines a few years after the Philippine Senate voted to evict US bases here. The newly signed EDCA, which is only an executive treaty, allows the US to build facilities and preposition assets inside Philippine military bases. 

Economically, Batongbacal said separation means cutting off overseas development assistance (ODA) and possibly preventing businesses from engaging in US transactions.

Duterte's subsequent clarification showed these are not what he meant. 

"I don't know what to expect. That is the whole thing about this president... China is the same. China says all the right things and does many of the wrong things," Baviera said, even before Duterte made the clarification.

Duterte has also long been making pronouncements about ending the regular war games and West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) joint patrols between the Philippines and the US. The US said it has not received formal communications about these. (READ: Duterte: If China gives us loans, no more 'American exercises')

EDCA was negotiated by the previous administration of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III against the backdrop of China's aggressiveness in the South China Sea. The Philippines, which has one of Asia's weakest militaries, sought to increase US presence in the country to deter China. 

Duterte's repeated tirades against the US, using abusive language, is widely covered by the international media.

New York Times column called on the US to "drop" the MDT because it risks a war between the US and China over the South China Sea. Analysis from Foreign Policy, meanwhile, said Duterte's pivot to China is a "disaster for the US" and its rebalance to Asia Pacific.

The US seeks to maintain freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a multimillion trade route that China is determined to dominate. – Rappler.com