Strategic and PoliticalWeekly Series

Weekly Issues | President Duterte at UNGA

September 25, 2020

Featured Contributor

Ambassador Roberto R. Romulo

Chairman of the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace and Development
Founding Director of the US-Philippines Society

His article appeared in the Philippine Star and is shared with the Society’s online readership, with the author’s permission.

Although it took the President four years into his tenure to speak at an important gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly, it was well worth the wait. And what a speech it was, both in terms of delivery and substance. He did not ramble as he is wont to do, but spoke in measured tones in a manner worthy of a head of state. All in stark contrast with his friend President Trump.

He defended his anti-drug war campaign and pushed back at critics of the country’s human rights record and presented a “tour de horizon” of the country’s core foreign policy stance.

I think it is in the latter that he accomplished two important things. First, he made his peace with the United Nations. He enumerated Philippine support to issues near and dear to the United Nations – multilateralism, sustainable development, climate change, rule of law, migrant workers, refugees and peacekeeping. He thanked the UN for its role in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. And instead of calling it inutile and threatening to withdraw our membership, he struck a conciliatory tone in calling for reforms so that the UN can better fulfill its mandate. I am sure this came as a relief to our diplomats who had been saddled with the unenviable role of defending the President’s rants against the UN.

The second, and most significant moment, is that this was the first time in the UN that the Duterte administration has ever invoked the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) which invalidated China’s claim over the entirety of the South China Sea based on historic rights. In his speech, Duterte said, “We firmly reject attempts to undermine” the ruling which is “now part of international law, beyond compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish or abandon.” He added, “we welcome the increasing number of states that have come in support of the award and what it stands for.” This certainly was a proud moment for Filipinos. Will the President now actually translate this splendid rhetoric into action?

Like I said in my column of July 17 and this Wednesday, we hope that this would be the signal for the administration to push back more aggressively at China’s actuations in the South China Sea – building and militarizing artificial islands, preventing our fishermen from plying their livelihood in their traditional fishing grounds, while allowing Chinese fishing fleets to deplete our marine resources, harassing our navy’s resupply missions, and conducting unauthorized patrols in waters under Philippine jurisdiction.

The President had in the past ignored these egregious actions, reasoning that we cannot afford to go to war with China so we might as well take advantage of the economic largesse that China was promising. But to date that largesse has still to materialize. What we have been getting instead are investments that have not generated meaningful employment for Filipinos, but have also endangered our peace and security.

We already know that POGOs have been breeding grounds for crime, corruption, human trafficking and tax evasion. Just recently, a fellow columnist pointed out the security threats posed by Chinese contractors in two areas: the reconstruction of what was the home base for Air Force and Navy units in Sangley Point, and the installation of cell towers in military facilities throughout the country following an agreement between the Department of National Defense and the Philippine-Chinese joint venture third telco Mislatel. Security experts have pointed out the risk of exposing our military facilities to espionage and sabotage by providing Chinese contractors using Chinese workers free access to the bases.

I am not advocating that we cut economic ties with China. Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia who have equal, if not more economic stake than us vis-a-vis China, have been more pro-active than us in resisting China’s aggressive behaviour.

I submit Mr. President that our meekness in the past has been reciprocated more with insincerity and condescending behavior than economic contribution. Now, that you have “unsheathed the sword” of the rule of law, let us demand the respect that we deserve as a sovereign nation with a proud history of fighting for freedom. We welcome friends, especially those who claim historical and cultural kinship, who come with both arms open, and not with one behind the back.

About the Author

Ambassador Roberto R. Romulo joined government service in June 1989 when he was appointed Ambassador to Belgium, Luxembourg and the Commission of the European Communities. In 1992, he was appointed Foreign Minister. In 1995, he rejoined the private sector and was elected as Chairman of PLDT and Vice-chair of San Miguel International. In 1996, he was the founding Chairman of the APEC Business Advisory Council and continued as Chairman of the Philippine Representation until 2010.

Ambassador Romulo is a founding director of the US-Philippines Society. He chairs the Carlos P. Romulo Foundation for Peace and Development, Zuellig Family Foundation, Foundation for IT Education and Development (FIT-ED), Philippine Foundation for Global Concerns and Asia-Europe Foundation of the Philippines.

As a diplomat, he has been decorated by the governments of Belgium, Thailand, Spain, Chile, France and the Philippines. He is a graduate of Georgetown University with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and the Ateneo de Manila University with a Bachelor of Laws.

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