OUR new president’s speeches resemble some Russian novels, in that these are marked by thought-provoking but often wordy references to history, and tend to be difficult to read.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s speech last Thursday night in an investment forum in Beijing repeated an old grievance. He said again that in questioning the deaths of some 3,000 persons since his administration’s war on drugs began, leaders of the European Union and the United States had disrespected him.
“I announce my separation from the United States,” he said to his hosts in China, to much applause. But a little over 24 hours later, arriving in Davao, he said he certainly didn’t mean the Philippines would sever diplomatic ties with the United States.
“I cannot do that,” he said in answer to a journalist’s question. “The people of my country are not ready.”
He got that part right. The President did not mention a Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey released earlier in the week, but its results are relevant. After polling 1,200 respondents last Sept. 24 to 27, the SWS reported that the United States was the nation the respondents trusted most. They gave the country a trust rating of +66.
China had the lowest rating among the countries mentioned in the survey, at -33 percent. In fact, China’s net trust ratings have been negative in 17 rounds of the survey since May 2012.
Knowing these realities, what did President Duterte hope to accomplish by making that statement in Beijing? It is possible he was playing to the gallery. Of course he knows he cannot single-handedly “rebalance” Philippine foreign policy, or let personal grievances dictate its direction.
It’s also possible that these repeated disavowals of the United States are a bid for attention and better treatment, the way a person who’s feeling underappreciated or unloved may act out by seeking attention from another source.
It’s not the first time Philippine-US relations became testy. But right now, less than three weeks away from the American elections, comments about foreign relations with the US are mostly noise. Duterte, in Friday night’s press conference, told an American reporter that “it would not really matter much” to him whether Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump wins. “I am better off in answering that my favorite hero is (Russian President Vladimir) Putin.”
All this bluster would be funny if it wasn’t an unnecessary distraction. After several cases when Cabinet secretaries had to walk back the President’s statements, a senator has found it necessary to ask for an inquiry on “the foreign policy direction of the government.” Which is a lot like asking an author, Russian or not, where the hell his story is really going.
In Senate Resolution 158, Sen. Paolo Benigno Aquino IV said that the “conflicting statements coming from the President and senior government officials” have raised the need to reassure Filipinos “that we are pursuing a clear and coherent foreign policy that is most beneficial to the country.” Aray.
You could say that nearly four months in, President Duterte simply needs more time to master the art of saying only what needs to be said. You could also say that unleashing these controversial statements forms part of a deliberate strategy to keep the spotlight on himself. Misdirection, in a word, which was one of the tactics that served his campaign well.
Which would you prefer? The first view would make us patient listeners. The latter would make us pawns.
#Sepanx: how kids used to convey “separation anxiety” before old fogeys like us figured out what it meant.