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Duterte Just Shit All Over The Philippine Military

June 8, 2018

President Duterte with an AKM in 2017. Next to him is Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu. Via PCOO.

Upon his return from a three-day state visit to South Korea this week, President Duterte met with the local press at the airport for an update on his accomplishments abroad. The ensuing questions from journalists covered details of his trip but when queried on alleged “diplomatic actions” connected to the South China Sea Duterte once again revealed his poor grasp of the country’s strategic dilemma.

As if this weren’t bad enough, Duterte disparaged the armed forces by claiming they would overthrow him when ordered to defend national territory. There’s now a clear public record of Duterte’s remarks on the South China Sea crisis and it shows–objectively and without equivocation–the Filipino leader is afraid of the Chinese military and won’t confront its leader.

A full transcript of Duterte’s June 6 press conference is available from the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO).

Foreign Policy?

One reporter’s question to Duterte wanted a specific rundown of the diplomatic actions the administration had taken in the South China Sea crisis. Duterte replied by insisting that foreign policy was under his direct control and reminded the audience of how dangerous China was.

Excerpt from page 4 of the official transcript. Highlighted text by 21AAR. Via PCOO.

“We cannot afford a war at this time because it will result in a massacre,” he said. “I am not prepared to lose my soldiers and policemen for a simple adventurism.”

Duterte recalled discussing the South China Sea crisis with Xi Jinping when they first met. He used the same occasion to make it clear the Philippines “will dig our own oil there.”

According to Duterte, even his country’s alliance with the US shouldn’t be trusted. “Can I rely now on America to drop the first bomb when we attack? Can I rely on anybody’s help?” he asked the audience.

Duterte then railed against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and admitted his presidency might not survive a military blunder. “If all my soldiers will die there…and the Philippines is disgraced, who’s responsible?”

“The people will execute me right at the Luneta…or the military and police will oust me,” he said. “How many times have the military intervened in the country? if I were a general ordered to go there [West Philippine Sea] to die with my troops I’d tell the President, fuck you!”

“This is an armed forces of service, not suicide,” Duterte said. When asked if he was aware of Chinese activities at the Second Thomas Shoal, where an old Philippine Navy ship is beached and garrisoned by marines, the President feigned ignorance.

Entangling Alliances

Given his tendency to use colorful language and plainspeak, Duterte’s claims about the South China Sea and the military weren’t just perplexing, but lacked context and facts. It’s as if his own staff, and the rest of the government, are failing to keep him updated on national security issues.

Duterte inspecting a CQ 5.56mm carbine from an arms package delivered by China in 2017. Via PCOO.

For Duterte to insist the Philippines can’t afford a war is remiss. Whether the Philippines wants to or not, it’s in a showdown with China and the best course is rekindling ties with other regional powers. This makes sense because the PLA are being readied for war by Xi Jinping and it’s no surprise a US-led alliance is taking shape to deter China. If it chooses to, the Philippines can join an ASEAN security pact or the “Quad” for its own survival. Yet Duterte seems to have forgotten the US is actually doing the Philippines a favor by conducting patrols in the South China Sea on a scheduled basis. On top of that, the AFP is acquiring new equipment for territorial defense and Duterte even endorsed a bold scheme for the military to raise its own budget by leasing bases for commercial use.

Another lazy generalization used by Duterte is always mentioning the needless deaths of soldiers and policemen. This is supposed to convey his concern for the thousands of men and and women in uniform whom he often lavishes with praise. But Duterte’s words are meaningless when it’s clear the dispute in the South China Sea–or better yet, the West Philippine Sea–is a problem to be dealt with by the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard, with assistance from the Philippine Air Force (PAF). It doesn’t make sense for large bodies of soldiers and policemen to deploy in the contested waters.

Just last month Duterte assured the navy it’s getting a larger budget and mentioned the arrival of Beechcraft TC-90 surveillance aircraft from Japan that have the range to patrol the West Philippine Sea. During the first quarter of this year the runway on Pag-asa Island underwent improvements for supporting medium transports–it’s obvious the AFP are doing what it can with what it has.

A Little More Context

Indeed, the Philippines’ annual defense budget may total less than 1% of its current GDP but the amount is enough to afford numerous capabilities for defending its vulnerable waters. Back in Metro Manila, however, Duterte raised other worrisome points in his last press conference.

The PLAN’s reception for Duterte and his staff during a goodwill visit to Davao City in 2017. Via China Military Online.

Almost two years since taking office, Duterte keeps brandishing the falsehood of abundant oil reserves in the South China Sea that the Philippines can exploit. There’s no doubt the area’s natural resources are substantial but exact data for oil reserves beneath the seabed are hard to find. The US Energy Information Agency (EIA) approximates there are at least 11 billion barrels worth of proved and provable oil reserves in the South China Sea and acknowledges the dubious figure promoted by a state-owned Chinese oil company reaching 125 billion barrels of oil. Yet whether or not these dizzying figures are within the Philippines’ claim over the Spratly Islands is unclear. Though Manila wants to explore some disputed features for oil, joint ventures with Beijing haven’t materialized.

Meanwhile, there are now seven artificial islands in the Spratlys that serve as offshore bases for the PLAN, whose ships conduct exercises in the South China Sea at least once a month.

What really made Duterte’s approach to the South China Sea crisis reprehensible is his sudden disdain for the AFP. “How many times have the military intervened in this country?” he asked during the June 6 press conference. “Are you sure the military will follow [its orders] if it means a massacre on the beaches of Palawan?”

With four decades of public service behind him, Duterte believes coup d’etats are feasible in the Philippines. This is a dangerous myth because no military uprising ever succeeded in the country since independence on July 4, 1946. Even the “People Power” revolt in 1986 was a mass protest against the dictator Ferdinand Marcos to defend the conspirators of an aborted mutiny. When President Cory Aquino was in power between 1986 and 1992 there were at least a half dozen attempts to overthrow her by disgruntled officers and the largest involved 6,000 soldiers. They all failed.

The last true coup attempts in the Philippines were launched by the so-called Magdalo Group in 2003 and, in an even smaller scale, in 2007 during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term. Since then, changes to education and training have dampened the AFP’s “adventurism” and coups are now far-fetched. The Magdalos themselves shaped up and became a registered party list with an ex-marine, Congressman Gary Alejano, to push their nationalist agenda.

Duterte receives a cap from a PLAN officer while aboard a Chinese warship in Davao City. Via China Military Online.

Unwelcome Candor

For Duterte to describe the Philippine military as insubordinate and power hungry is uncalled for. The Constitution of the Republic of the Philippines makes it explicitly clear the armed forces exist to secure the integrity of national territory. With the multitude of problems besetting the institution it has done what it can to hold the West Philippine Sea against Chinese encroachment.

In a rare display of candor, Duterte justified his foreign policy with doubtful claims about impending war, sacrificing soldiers’ lives, bogus oil exploration, and a non-existent coup d’etat. The same President who swore China will protect him while aboard a Philippine Navy vessel just shit all over Filipino soldiers.

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