Friday, October 14, 2005

The Ominous Silence of Washington

DESPERATE cries for help have apparently fallen upon deaf ears.

Not even the Leandro Aragoncillo spy scandal story recycled through Manila's spinmaster machine has elicited anything but a stony, ominous silence from the White House for the plight of the tenant of Malacanang Palace, beleaguered by a gathering storm of opposition.

Since the Aragoncillo story broke, the Palace has been conducting an intensive public relations campaign to play up the connection with leading Opposition figures. The hope is to tar-and-feather the entire opposition as espionage masterminds stealing secrets from the White HOuse.

All sorts of creative additions and angles have been added to the story to enrage the US public at Philippine Opposition, as well as to project an image of coziness with Washington. It's a kind of public relations antidote to the estrangement of the President from erstwhile close allies in the US, ever since the Angelo de la Cruz debacle and her Chinese dalliance.

But here is what the United States Embassy in Manila's Charge d'Affairs recently said to press queries about the local reporting on recent events Ambassador Darryl Johnson:
Q: Can you address the issue of some of those who are upset about reports by your predecessor over some of our officials here?

Ambassador Johnson:
"These alleged reports are part of the case that has been brought against these two people and at this stage it would not be appropriate to comment on the distorted portions that have been reported in the Philippine press. It is not appropriate because this investigation is still going on. I would say, however, that the versions of the stories that have been reported here are nowhere close to being accurate."
Recent Commentary on the exchanges in the blogosphere among Filipino American writers on the Aragoncillo matter is here.

In The View From Washington? ABS/CBN Cable News anchor Ricky Carandang asks about the context in which these revelations have been resurrected from when they first happened last month:
First, the US has become increasingly dismayed with GMA. Her indecisive leadership and her propensity to play footsies with China has led the US government to the conclusion that she is not a reliable ally and that there are other Philippine leaders that they can be more comfortable working with. Note that when she travelled to the US to address the UN general assembly that she was pushing hard for a one-on-one meeting with George W. Bush–a request that the White House decisively turned down.
If you go over the widely leaked assessments that US charge d’affaires Joseph Mussomeli provided Washington in July, you get the sense that support for GMA was phlegmatic at best, and nonexistent at worst. You also get the sense that Mussomeli was concerned (perhaps excessively) that Joseph Estrada was postioning himself for a political comeback of sorts. Mussomeli seemed to believe that while GMA was hopeless, Estrada was not going to be an acceptable alternative… least not to the US. For Washington, former President Fidel Ramos is the best alternative. Unfortunately, there seems to be no conceivable way that he could once again be president or even prime minister.

So where does this leave Washington?

With an unreliable Philippine president that it will not actively support, nor will it actively seek to undermine. We just aren’t important enough to Washington for them to aggressively take a part in our affairs the way they used to during the Cold War."

I disagree only with the last sentence in the above quotation and will address it shortly. But the rest of Mr. Carandang's assessment is consistent with that of certain think tanks that have often reliably reflected the views and attitudes of the White House.

For example, this Heritage Foundation Commentary from October, 2004, Dana Robert Dillon calls President Arroyo the region's weakest leader:
Over the last few months, President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo of the Philippines has allowed Iraqi terrorists to determine the location, mission and staying power of her nation's military commitments. And she has acceded to China's expansionist plans in the South China Sea. But she has also accepted nearly $100 million a year in military, development and food aid from the United States since the Sept. 11 attacks, at the same time working against American interests on a variety of issues.

Some ally.

The longer her administration makes foreign policy for the Philippines, the more it seems that threats from terrorists and regional bullies influence her more than diplomatic and financial aid from Manila's friends and allies. On question after question, she has changed policies to put her and her erstwhile allies into weaker positions. At this point, she must be considered the weakest leader in the region.

The meaning of weak leadership is amply characterized by Mr. Dillon as inconstancy with respect to our military commitments and inconstancy with respect to the stated policy of never dealing with and worse capitulating to terrorists:
When Iraqi militants kidnapped a Filipino truck driver, Angelo de la Cruz, President Arroyo negotiated with the Iraqi terrorists and struck a deal to have Mr. de la Cruz released in less than three weeks. As a result of the deal, the Philippine government withdrew its troops from Iraq, and Ms. Arroyo claimed a significant political victory.

This lightning-fast and irresponsible capitulation to terrorists stands in stark contrast to Ms. Arroyo's actions when Americans are held hostage in her own country. In August 2000, Abu Sayyaf Muslim extremists in the southern islands of the Philippines kidnapped a 24-year-old American, Jeffrey Schilling. During the nearly nine-month confinement of Mr. Schilling, then Philippine Defense Secretary Angelo Reyes made his government's intentions clear with regard to its policy regarding terrorists. "We do not negotiate," he said at the time. "We will never negotiate with terrorists."

But it is indeed Gloria's turn to China that has resounded as a slap in Washington's face even after all the aid she has been given and evokes Dillon's greatest disdain:
Six countries contest territorial claims in the South China Sea -- sometimes hotly. Among them, China's claims are easily the most immoderate. The Chinese unofficially claim the entire sea from China to Indonesia as territorial waters. In 1995, the Chinese military occupied Mischief Reef and claimed it as historical Chinese territory. The reef, adjacent to the Philippines and well within Manila's 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, or EEZ, is 1,000 miles from China's mainland.

Until the Arroyo administration, Manila had been at the heart of efforts by Asean to align its member countries in a common stance against Chinese expansion into the South China Sea. In 1999, Manila helped draft an Asean proposal for a common code of conduct in the South China Sea. In January 2000, Philippine diplomats showed photographs to the foreign ministers of other Asean countries of the hugely expanding Chinese installations on Mischief Reef, and Asean responded with a call for Chinese restraint and strict observance of international law.

President Arroyo would rather appease than confront. Her administration claims its agreement with China does not constitute a surrender of sovereignty over a potentially sensitive area near the Philippines' coast. But don't hold your breath waiting for news that the Philippines will benefit from any joint exploration near China's coast or EEZ. The agreement is not reciprocal.

This was in October, 2004 when the Northrail Contract was being negotiated and signed. Seems like the Heritage Foundation already foresaw the disadvantages and perils of dealing with China. Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has the story on that highly controversial railway project with China.

In this regard, Philippine Commentary joins the rising chorus of derision for the absurd plan of presidential-appointee Atty. Rick Abcede to have the Congress abolish the University of Philippines Law Center. It will be recalled that the Philippine Senate commissioned the Law Center to study of the Northrail Contract with China and that last week they testified in the Upper House that the contract was p patently illegal for not conducting a required public bidding, that it was overpriced and ought to be declared null and void. Here is their Report (PDF).

Today, the Bishops are marching for truth. It may be more than silence the President gets from now on. It could be more like a cold shoulder...

1 comment:

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