Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte addressed China on Friday: “Let us be friends, but do not touch Pag-asa [Thitu] Island and the rest. If you make moves there, that’s a different story. I will tell my soldiers, ‘Prepare for suicide mission.’”
Strong words, indeed! The defiant statement was duly reported all over the world.
And apparently, it was not made off the cuff. The Philippine government previously issued a statement that the Chinese Navy has sent as many as 275 navy, coast guard and maritime militia vessels to the vicinity of Thitu on the contested Spratly Islands. “It has been observed that Chinese vessels have been present in large numbers and for sustained and recurring periods – what is commonly referred to as ‘swarming’ tactics – raising questions about their intent as well as concerns over their role in support of coercive objectives.”
But one does not exactly know now whether Duterte says what he means, and means what he says. Is the suicide mission just another “jetski” story?
Duterte can help us understand him if he will translate his words into deeds.
The first presidential thing to do is for Duterte to visit Thitu and make a strategic declaration of Philippine resolve to defend Philippine territory and sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. Senator Panfilo Lacson already gave a strong hint when he said he is willing to accompany Duterte on such a visit.
Duterte actually owes it to the nation to visit Pag-asa. A visit to Thitu is the operational equivalent of the first stage of his jetski promise to plant the Philippine flag on the Spratlys in the South China Sea. If he is up to it, he can take the Philippine flag to the now Chinese-occupied Subi Reef, 26 kilometres away from Thitu – a jetski-able distance on a tankful of gas, even for an ageing macho man.
Duterte would add a nice personal touch if he would also stay the night, and have a boodle fight and a round of beer with the soldiers who are stationed there for boring months on end.
The second presidential thing to do is to now call for volunteers in the military services to make up the suicide mission. Even the Japanese kamikaze had to prepare and go through training and motivation sessions before they went on their one-way mission. They were allowed to write letters to their loved ones, akin to Islamic State suicide bombers making suicide videos.
But it looks unlikely that President Duterte will openly make a personal visit to Thitu Island. This will be a defiant, symbolic and potentially strategic move that reverses all the fawning toward China he has maintained over three years. Xi Jinping will not allow him to do that. Unless, perhaps, he is accompanied by Ambassador Zhao Jianhua of China.
We forget that this Pag-asa crisis is happening just before the May elections. Duterte will do anything to prevent a dramatic shift in public opinion that will endanger the chances of his administration candidates. If he does not win a Senate supermajority (17 automatic votes out of 24), he will not have quasi-dictatorial powers within the framework of the 1987 constitution.
The candidates of the Duterte administration are way ahead of the opposition candidates according to the surveys. But Duterte is beleaguered, suffering simultaneous setbacks – the loss of his “air force” of worshipful Facebook accounts due to “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. He had to explain to Xi Jinping he had nothing to do with the complaint against the latter before the International Criminal Court. Viral videos allege that the Dutertes are behind drug operations in the country. He is exasperated with the worsening drug and corruption problems. The psychological moment for a shift in political fortunes is in the air!
Will Xi Jinping allow Rodrigo Duterte to play hero, visit Thitu Island, boodle with the troops and make hyperbolic announcements in aid of the election of the Hugpong ng Pagbabago candidates? His visit to Thitu, of course, would only be theatre to calm the natives; the China-Duterte friendship will remain. He closes with a sly wink.
Ah, I am sure Xi Jinping is a reasonable man, with a long-term vision, in dealing even with his subalterns.