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Opinion | National

MARIE YUVIENCO | An Affair to Dismember

President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in Beijing. (Reuters)
The online news portal of TV5

Conducting foreign affairs is much like navigating through polar ice:  steer the ship in the wrong direction and before long, you will hear “My Heart Will Go On” playing in the background. 

He may not be king of the world, but as President of the Republic, Rodrigo Duterte comes close, and he is the one person empowered by the Constitution to exercise foreign relations powers. He is both head of state and head of government, and as such represents 100 million Filipinos as he goes about jetting to China, Japan and the rest of Southeast Asia to mend fences, renew old ties, strike lucrative deals and generally implement his vision of where the Philippines should stand in relation to its neighbors, allies and rivals.

The most basic tenet of diplomacy is that, in the global arena, there are no permanent allies, and just as there are no permanent allies, neither are there permanent enemies. There are only permanent interests.  (The one person who understood this best, aside from our good people at the Department of Foreign Affairs, was probably the late Inday Badiday.  I heard her say several times that in show business, there are no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests. It was a shrewd observation which should surprise no one since she was a diplomat’s daughter; it also demonstrates the interdisciplinary application of the number one rule of international relations to the entertainment industry.) 

I think President Duterte understands this implicitly, although to listen to his critics, one can be forgiven for feeling apprehensive at the apparent direction he is taking the country, pivoting from the West to face the East and apparently forsaking old alliances and cultivating new ones.

To be fair to him, the President is not yet six months in office; not much can be accomplished in the space of four months, although even within that time, a president is expected to hit the ground running. In the space of those four months, however, he has made a lot of people nervous with his many statements, a lot of which are outrageous, coming from the mouth of a head of state. 

But look, people get the leader they deserve and a plurality of Filipinos did vote him into office, and like it or not, he’ll likely be there for the next six years. And people have to get over the notion that Malacañang’s present occupant is a small-town hick who is dog-paddling out of his depth; although he may not look or sound like everyone’s stereotype of a chief executive, he did, after all, finish law school and pass the bar, an accomplishment not to be sniffed at.

The thing that makes me wonder is why a lot of people are finding it hard to take him at his word when he says that in re-drawing the power balance in the region, as president, he has only one interest in mind, that is, the interest of the Filipino people.

Obviously, to the president’s mind, where the Philippines stands vis-à-vis the United States, our traditional ally and one-time colonizer, is not working to our advantage. Few will argue with this, and those who do, I suspect, are keen to maintain the status quo precisely because it serves their own interests, individual or national. 

A new approach, it seems, is what the president thinks is needed to redress the imbalance. Thus, when President Duterte says that he is inclined to re-examine the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement with the United States, it isn’t because the US is no longer a permanent friend. The US maintains relations with us because it serves their permanent interest to do so to preserve its influence in this part of the world. American interests are not ours even if they may benefit us incidentally. States rarely act out of altruism, which may sound cold and cynical, but it also doesn’t make it any less true.  In the meantime, we have our national interests to consider.

It’s no different from his approach to solving the Mindanao problem. His administration’s openness to the peace process stands in stark contrast with those of previous presidents who believed more in the force of arms. Peace, however, cannot be achieved when a gun is pointed at your head, as government negotiators should have learned by now, so the Duterte administration’s novel approach, which is to concede to the region and its inhabitants what they need to progress, within constitutional limits, of course, deserves another look.

What deserves mentioning, too, is that the presidency, though a powerful office, is not an omnipotent one. Its powers are circumscribed by the Constitution, and in the arena of foreign relations, Congress plays an indispensable role in the conclusion of treaties between states; as to agreements that President Duterte will enter into with Japan or China, such can be examined and questioned by citizens under the Bill of Rights and challenged in the proper court. These are the hallmarks of a functioning democracy and not an incipient dictatorship, as some would have us believe.

Now, as to whether the country is being steered in the right direction, only time will tell.