Did Philippine President Duterte talk too fast about China?

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Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. (By Associated Press)

Just like United States President Donald Trump, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has established a reputation as a fast talker not afraid to use direct language. As China flexes its military muscles in the South China Sea, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un promotes his self-importance using nuclear weapons, and a trade war is about to engulf the whole world, is Duterte’s highly unorthodox way of running his country a secret recipe to counter chaos, or is it a side effect of an erroneously taken political remedy?

Speaking honestly, today’s Philippines looks like it’s walking on a tightrope above the balance of terror, not like it’s jogging around Disneyland, going in and out of pavilions at no cost to itself. Caught between the U.S. and China, the Philippines will have a hard time keeping away from offending either side. As soon as it is careless and makes a mistake, it could end up antagonizing both sides.

In order to solve financial problems, President Duterte has said that the country should turn into “the Province of the Philippines under the Republic of China.” Of course he misspoke, but should his originally intended meaning that “the Philippines should become a province of China” not be considered a joke gone too far? Does Duterte think that China’s remote provinces are as filled with opportunity and wealth as those on the coast in the southeast of the country? What is the focus if the president of the Philippines does not want to be the governor of a U.S. state but of a Chinese province? Will the wrong understanding and yearning for China not lead to erroneous policies and decisions toward the country?

Duterte says that China’s construction of artificial islands and military installations in the South China Sea is not directed against the countries in the region but against its likely enemy, the U.S., so he calls on his citizens not to worry too much. But is it really like that or not? What kind of news is the decision broadcasting that the United Kingdom will send its anti-submarine frigate the HMS Sutherland through the South China Sea next month to spotlight the freedom of navigation?

Last year on March 17, Japan donated a frigate to Vietnam. In late March, a group of Vietnamese fishing trawlers approached the Scarborough Shoal accompanied by a Vietnamese coastguard vessel, does that amount to crisis consciousness or to being too depressed?

When Duterte met with Chinese and Filipino business people on February 19, he said that China’s President Xi Jinping promised not to build any installations on the Scarborough Shoal, the subject of a dispute about sovereignty between China and the Philippines. He thinks Xi is a trustworthy person who will keep his promises, and that China’s words can be relied on. He also emphasized that the Philippines can only interact with China in the South China Sea in a friendly and civilized way, and that war is absolutely not an option. “Why should we start a war with China? China is willing to talk,” and “I will not send the Philippines’ military to the battlefield to be slaughtered.” Duterte said he would not allow Filipino lives to be senselessly sacrificed, so he would not fight a war that he had absolutely no way of winning.

Duterte’s words are direct and include both hope and idealism. What is to fear is that what the Chinese have been saying is all false, and that only the lies are true. What is to fear is that China wants you to listen and not to talk. What is to fear is that the terms “credibility” and “promises” are not in the dictionary of the Chinese, so if you take them at their word, this world will have no more cheaters! What is to fear is that China has no way of interacting like friends with its neighbors, and that it is unable of using a civilized way of dealing with dissent, so won’t it be like talking to a brick wall if Duterte wants to interact with Beijing in a friendly and civilized way? What is to fear is that China does not hope for war, but that the precondition is that it hopes you surrender quietly first!

The author is a former deputy secretary general of the Taiwan Association of University Professors and a retired associate professor at the National Hsinchu University of Education.