Thinking Pinoy: #PiliPinasDebates2016: Duterte, Poe, and Foreign Policy

March 23, 2016

#PiliPinasDebates2016: Duterte, Poe, and Foreign Policy

Duterte’s question about a military crisis completely baffled Poe, publicly exposing the latter’s inexperience. The incident popularized a number of memes, so I won’t add to that anymore. Instead, let’s take Poe a bit more seriously and let’s analyze what exactly happened during the said incident.

Duterte asks, Poe “answers”

Duterte asked:
What would happen if, one night, gigisingin ka tapos sasabihin na "Ma'am, ang dalawa nating coast guard [vessels], pinasabog [ng China], what would be the first 3 steps that you'd do? (sic)

Duterte’s question was rather straightforward:
What are the first things that Poe would do if she suddenly discovers that China committed a markedly grievous act of war?
Poe answered with this long-winding statement:
Ito ang problema: ang ating bansa maliit ang defense budget at ang china, napakalaki. Nagiging praktikal lang tayo kaya nagfa-file tayo ng kaso. Pero hindi nangangahulugan na dahil mas maliit ang ating bansa ay hindi natin puwedeng pag-ipunan at pagdepensahan ang ating sarili. Ang Singapore, 4 million people lang sila, pero walang nagbubully sa kanila sapagkat malakas ang kanilang maritime at ang kanilang air defense.

Sa ating bansa, pwede tayong lumaban, pero ito lang ang ating kayang tanggapin: talo talaga tayo sa China ngayon ‘pag tayo’y lumaban. Kailangan natin talaga na magdesisyon na ang arbitration court at sabihin na since ang China ay pumirma dito, kailangan nilang tanggapin ang kanilang kasunduan sa ating bansa.

Ito naman Pilipinas, kailangan ay makipagsapalaran kasama ng ibang asean countries tulad ng Vietnam, Indonesia, at Malaysia, para constructively i-engage ang China to follow a code of conduct. Hindi ko papayagan na mamatay ang ating mga sundalo na walang kalaban-laban.

Pero ito ang problema: ang budget ng ating AFP, dapat ay bibili na tayo ng surface-to-air missiles para man lamang madepensahan ang ating sarili pero ano ang ginawa ng administrasyon na ito? Pinalitan at sinabing ang bibilin na lang natin ay bullet-proof vest at sombrero. Importante din yon, pero bakit hindi natin pwedeng bilhin ang parehong yon. Pagkakataon na natin, kaya sa atin ngayon, nakakalungkot. Hindi natin kaya pero kailangan ay pag-ipunan natin at siguraduhin na sa darating na mga taon ay kaya na nating depensahan ang ating sarili.

Kinakailangan, bilang isang pangulo, ay katukin ko ang pinto ng bawat bansa para tayuan nila ang pagkakasunduan dito sa UNCLOS, ay gagawin ko. Sapagkat ito ang realidad, pero ‘pag nagsama-sama ang mga bansa para sabihin sa China na “Mali ka.”, tayo ay mananaig pa rin sa sitwasyong ito.

Poe gave a painfully convoluted answer. There were just too many words that made little to no sense. However, her statement can be summed up into 5 points:
  1. Militarily, we are no match against China, hence the UNCLOS case.
  2. If we go to war with China, we will surely lose, so we need to pursue arbitration.
  3. Strengthen relations with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam and use it as political leverage.
  4. Despite a small population, Singapore has a strong military, that’s why China leaves it alone.
  5. Increase AFP budget so we can buy everything we need to defend ourselves in the future. Poe won’t let our soldiers die without a fighting chance.

The answer is obviously off-tangent: Duterte was clearly asking Poe how she would handle a diplomatic-military crisis of such magnitude and urgency.

In such a scenario, there would be no more time to strengthen the military sans declaring a war economy, let alone the long and painstaking process of enhancing soft power within ASEAN.

Overlapping territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea. (Image Courtesy of

Poe was clearly clueless as she rambled about her proposed plan of action. She even took a swipe at the PNoy administration’s policy (missiles versus sombreros), even if it was totally irrelevant to the question at hand.

The Question, Rephrased

Duterte, visibly unsatisfied, rephrased the question to make sure that Poe understands. He reiterated that he wants to know the first three concrete things that Poe would do.

Duterte said:

I am just talking about the worst case scenario. Ang tanong ko kasi, ‘What would be the first three steps that you would do if you are informed, in the middle of the night, if you’re awakened, na yong dalawang coast guard cutter natin, pinasabog ng China with missiles, what would be the first three steps that you would do?’

Everyone expected an answer in this form.

Spratly’s aside, this question-and-answer situation was her first major crisis during the debates – and she knows it.

Visibly shaken, Poe clearly lost her characteristic grace when she said:

Ang kailangan nating gawin, siyempre ang presidente ay kailangang bumangon agad. Di ba? Di naman pwedeng ‘Ayyy! mamaya na ‘yan, mamayang alas singko, mamayang alas sais.’
Poe’s brief affair with pedantics backfired. A second later, she realized that her follow-up answer is just as embarrassing as the original. She’s starting to sound like a fool.

To rectify the gaffe, she quickly shifted to a more serious tone.

Poe added:
Mabilis na babangon ang presidente at itatawag ang head ng AFP at ang head ng DOTC sapagkat diyan napapailalim ang coast guard. Kaya nga’t napakahina at napakabulok. Kaya nga po dapat mag-usap kung paano ang gagawin.
Ngayon, mayroon tayong “visiting forces agreement”, mayroon tayong kasunduan sa ibang bansa kung paano tayo dedepensahan. Totoo, ayaw nating umasa sa kanila, pero pag tayo lang hindi natin kaya. Kung ano ang pupwedeng gawain sa panahong iyon, kailangan ay depensahan natin ang ating bansa, pero ang totoo, kailangan din natin ng tulong ng ibang komunidad para tayo madepensahan. Pero hindi nangangahulugan na hindi natin palalakasin ang ating military.

Poe's New "Answer"

The answer was, again, off-tangent (and misinformed).

Duterte clearly asked for a chronology of events, the algorithm of her solution. While she’s technically “following instructions” in the first two steps, she took a dangerous logical leap by citing international military treaties.

She was even proud to tell us that she knows the Coast Guard is under DOTC, even if nobody gives a damn. Poe, stress yourself out on the important details. This is not a high school quiz bee. We are talking about my country's future here.

This question was a clear test of Poe’s experience, and Poe failed miserably. She didn’t just lack nuance: she lacked a working understanding of foreign policy.

For one, she cited the wrong treaty.

The “Visiting Forces Agreement”, a treaty that focuses on providing legal immunity to American military personnel on Philippine Soil, is totally irrelevant to the crisis at hand. The applicable accord is the “1951 Mutual Defense Treaty”.

Remember Jennifer Laude?

Now, let’s analyze her new answer a bit further.

Despite its excruciating length, Poe said only two concrete things. Let's analyze each of them.

A. Poe will call the AFP chief and the DOTC secretary.

  1. In crises like these, it’s actually the AFP Chief of Staff who will wake you up either personally or through a phone call. Why call someone who’s already on a call with you or worse, who’s already in front of you? Did she seriously think that it would be her American husband,. who sleeps beside her, who will let her know? That an American will be the first to know about top-secret classified information?
  2. Doesn’t she have a system-in-place to handle such a contingency? Wouldn’t it be reasonable for her to establish beforehand a protocol that requires her entire cabinet and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to be already assembled in a conference hall, waiting for her command?
  3. Half of the population (49 million) is on social media. There’s bound to be a way for information to leak. What would she do to prevent mass panic?

B. Poe will invoke the “Visiting Forces Agreement”, if necessary.

  1. Before contacting our military allies, why won’t she summon the Chinese ambassador first? She abhors extrajudicial killings, but she’ll be in war-related talks with US even before hearing China’s side?
  2. Assuming that we invoke the correct treaty, how can we be certain that America will be there to help? America has a Democrat president and a Republican Congress for the foreseeable future. Does Poe understand this predicament’s ramifications on US foreign policy? 
  3. And if they will indeed arrive, how can she be certain that they’ll be here on time? Remember that Chinese military intelligence may somehow tap onto US-PH communications, so how can she be sure that Manila won’t be decimated AFTER declaring war and BEFORE the US Forces arrive? How can she prevent a Chinese blitzkrieg? Has she never read about the Attack on Pearl Harbor?
Some may argue that she has advisers to help her decide, but we must remember that the President, while not necessarily the book-smartest, should be the wisest of all public officials.

Are we voting for Poe or are we voting for Dean Tony La Vina? Kung ganon rin lang, e di dapat, si La Vina ang tumakbo at hindi si Poe.

Grace Poe's "Mentor", Ateneo Law Dean Tony La Vina.

Such a crisis requires deft split-second decision-making. Is Poe the battle-hardened leader who can do such a thing? How many civilian lives will be sacrificed because of an inexperienced decision maker?

I want a president who can think for herself.  I want a president whom I can entrust my life to.

This would not a have been a big deal if Duterte’s question was about an impending asteroid impact, but China?

Of all topics, Digong, why China? The situation, the question, is just too damn real.

Giving Poe the Benefit of the Doubt

At this point, it’s pretty clear that she can’t handle a crisis of such magnitude and urgency. However, for discussion’s sake, let’s remove the urgency and let's assume that Poe has a few years to play with.

Let’s recall her original answer. Poe cited 5 points:
  1. Militarily, we are no match against China, hence the UNCLOS case.
  2. If we go to war with China, we will surely lose, so we need to pursue arbitration.
  3. Strengthen relations with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam and use it as political leverage.
  4. Despite a small population, Singapore has a strong military, that’s why China leaves it alone.
  5. Increase AFP budget so we can buy everything we need to defend ourselves in the future. Poe won’t let our soldiers die without a fighting chance.
Now, let’s talk about these points one by one.

First, Poe was right when she said China has a superior military. What wasn’t mentioned, however, is by how much.

  • Our Air Force has an aging fleet of 135 aircraft. China has over 2,942.
  • Our Army has 650,000 active or reserve personnel. China has 4.6 million.
  • Our Navy has 119 vessels. China has 714 plus an aircraft carrier.
China's military is decades ahead of our Armed Forces. Any confrontation with China in the next couple of decades will be suicide on our part.

Global Military Power Rankings

Second, Poe was right when she said we’re better off with diplomacy. Where she got it wrong, however, is how.

Poe cited our UNCLOS/ITLOS arbitration case as the means to do it, a pro-American diplomatic stance. For a pedestrian, I think this is understandable, as the opposite would surely anger the public.

However, diplomacy is not always in black-and-white.

Currently, the Philippines is heavily aligned with the United States, something that China, a hegemon wannabe, is not very happy about. While a pro-Chinese Philippines is politically impossible, a neutral stance on US-China relations is not. That is, aside from ITLOS arbitration, we also have the option to distance ourselves a bit from the US and engage China in stealthy and shrewd bilateral talks.

But how can we expect Poe to be neutral? Poe is a former American who has an American husband, who has three American kids, and who still owns property in the United States.

And even if, by some slim chance, she indeed has the sincere intention to be neutral, how in the world will China believe a Filipino-turned-American-turned-Filipino?

Living the American Dream.

Third, I also agree that we can strengthen relations with Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam. What she doesn’t understand, however, is how much loyalty we can demand.

China provides 12.6%, 10%, and 11% of Malaysian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese export earnings, respectively. China is Malaysia’s largest investor. It’s also expanding investments in Indonesia. And everybody knows of Vietnam’s uncomfortable-yet-indispensable economic dependence on China.

Would those three major ASEAN economies risk their economic well-being just for us? What would they have to gain? Is our goodwill and friendship enough for them to risk massive economic recessions?

I don’t think so.

Fourth, I agree that Singapore has a strong military, but China leaves it alone for a different reason.

Singapore has no natural resources. Its economy relies on three things: a strategic location, a developed workforce, and long-term political stability. All these three are relatively irrelevant to China’s two primary ambitions: energy security and global hegemony.

By occupying the West Philippine Sea, the Chinese will fulfill a two-fold objective: gain access to a treasure trove of energy resources, and demonstrate politico-military superiority by publicly insulting the Philippines and by extension, the United States.

Singapore military is still a joke when compared to China’s, and Singapore has no delusions about it. The only reason why it’s left alone is because Singapore has nothing to offer.

Do you see any claims from Singapore?

Fifth, Poe called for massive AFP modernization to compensate. What wasn’t mentioned, however, is how much modernization we will need.

The 2015 PH defense budget was $552 million, while China spent $145.8 billion in the same period. Needless to say, we are still no match even if we spent 100 times more ($55.2 billion).

By the way, incidentally, $55.2 billion is roughly equal to the 2015 total national budget.

No amount of modernization will ensure a minimum credible defense.

At best, our planes, ships, tanks, and soldiers can only be used as bait, bait that will help trigger the Mutual Defense Pact. And just like an old shotgun, there’s no way to know if it’ll even work.

Thinking Pinoy's Takeaways

The presidency is not an privilege, instead, it's the heaviest responsibility that any Filipino can bear. I do not expect my president to be a walking encyclopedia, but I want him to be the wisest among his peers.

But you may want ask me: is it fair to expect everything from Poe?

My answer is no, it's not fair. It's not even expected. But I wasn't expecting everything from her. Instead, I was expecting her to have a core skill of president: decision making.

What I expected was wisdom, not knowledge.

Poe's delusions of grandeur led her to believe that she can get away with it, but she won't. If she didn't know what to do, which is obviously the case, the least she could have done during the debates is admit her ignorance.

But she didn't. She believed she was smart enough to just "wing it".

That's not wisdom, by any measure. [Thinking Pinoy]


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