‘China is a hostage-taker’

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THAT IS what in effect President Aquino told the world when he announced that his decision to boycott the Nobel ceremony was to convince China not to execute five Filipino prisoners convicted of drug trafficking. I hope I am wrong, but Mr. Aquino’s statements may have put the Death-Row prisoners closer to the firing squad.

Mr. Aquino’s logorrhea was highlighted by the fact none of the heads of the other 17 states that boycotted the Nobel ceremony admitted they buckled under Chinese pressure. Knowing what diplomacy is, most of them just kept mum, leaving the world to make their own obvious conclusions.

Despite his high approval ratings, this President is so extremely insecure that he had to announce that the boycott was meant to help save the five Filipino convicts. He junked principles—the assertion and defense of human rights—for expediency. This time, it couldn’t be a “matuwid na daan.”

The Chinese ambassador of course totally denied that China ever made the five Filipinos bargaining chips—in effect saying that our President was a liar.

Mr. Aquino’s totally unnecessary statement raised disbelieving eyebrows globally, with the press from Singapore to Seattle immediately posting on their websites the wire stories based on this newspaper’s scoop. “The Philippine leader revealed the blackmail … and the under-the-table deal,” was one newspaper’s spin.

Senator Joker Arroyo unwittingly highlighted the inanity of Mr. Aquino’s stance by saying that the move “was no different from the decision of then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo to pull out the country’s 51-member contingent from Iraq in July 2004 as demanded by Iraqi kidnappers of Filipino truck driver Angelo de la Cruz.” It escaped Arroyo’s normally analytical mind that he was putting the emerging superpower, the People’s Republic of China, in the same category of hostage-takers like the Khalid bin al-Waleed Brigade, the ragtag group of former Saddam officers who kidnapped De la Cruz in 2004.

One need not belabor the obvious differences that make a comparison ridiculous. De la Cruz was a hapless truck driver, while the five on Death Row went through the Chinese judicial process on drug trafficking charges, however the system might be suspect to the West. In 2004, the US war in Iraq started to appear as a colossal
blunder forcing nine countries to withdraw their forces, so the Philippine decision was not such a big deal. It wasn’t just De la Cruz’s life that was at stake; Filipino workers were everywhere in the Middle East, even in Iraq and Iran, and were vulnerable to jihadist attacks.

Because it is played on a world stage and because domestic politics could undermine diplomatic work, diplomacy is not a black-and-white affair, and cannot be undertaken by calling a spade a spade. “To say nothing, especially when speaking, is half the art of diplomacy,” as Will Durant’s famous quote goes.

Mr. Aquino need not have told the world that he was boycotting the Nobel ceremony in order to suck up to the Chinese so they won’t execute the five Filipino prisoners—something that wasn’t even known widely. He could have simply told the ambassador to Beijing to quietly relay the message that the commutation of the Filipinos’ death sentence is his quid pro quo for helping China’s cause.

I’m afraid that Mr. Aquino has not yet been informed that China is no longer ruled by one man like Mao Zedong.  Yes, China is still a single-party state, but in the last few decades it has built up its institutions, which includes a judiciary that can’t just be ordered around by its Foreign Ministry.

Mr. Aquino will use this fiasco though to get what he wants. This boo-boo will be blamed on Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, whom he wanted to kick out from the time he assumed power. Already, the New York Times (and a colleague on this page) quoted an Aquino “senior adviser” as saying that Romulo decided on the boycott without telling him, a ridiculous claim to anybody who has worked with Romulo. The senior adviser is obviously message-maker Ricky Carandang, who has been using the New York Times’ local stringer since the elections as his media asset.

Romulo flatly denies that account. “I recommend, but do not make foreign policy,” he said. “We had a plan, an imperfect one, but still a diplomatic one,” another DFA official said, referring to earlier statements made by the department that our ambassador’s absence at the Oslo event was simply a problem of scheduling. “He read our confidential briefing paper—which mentioned the five Filipinos on Death Row—and then spilled it to his favorite newspaper,” the official said.

This would all be just another comedic bungling if not for the Filipino lives involved. If China does not execute the Filipino convicts, and because Aquino said it was some sort of a deal, it would universally be condemned as a hostage-taker. More so if it executed other drug traffickers from countries which attended the Nobel ceremony.

The drug scourge is one of China’s big paranoia, because of its history of imperialist countries’ heroin trade in its territory in the 19th century. Public appeals for clemency by foreign states have even hastened the execution of drug traffickers. This was the case when China wasted no time executing a British national after the British foreign minister publicly appealed for clemency. This was also the case of five Japanese drug carriers executed early this year. The Chinese judiciary is said to be very keen on proving itself independent from the executive
branch. I sincerely hope I’m wrong on this one.

In any case, after this episode, the most important task of a new foreign secretary may be to gag this President.  It’s in our national interest.

From the Philippine Daily Inquirer