Friday, February 18, 2011

The Philippines' Tentative President

A welcome change from the predecessor, but is timorous better than corrupt?

President Benigno S. Aquino III is a nice guy with a soft heart. But is that really the leader a nation long lagging its regional peers needs?

Aquino's preference for putting the politics of the heart before considered views of the national interest has been classically illustrated by official intervention to try to save the lives of two Filipinos facing the death penalty after being convicted of drug smuggling in China.

In the latest episode of a now long-running saga, Vice-President Jojo Binay has gone to China to plead for the sentences to be commuted. His visit was at first rejected by China but Beijing then had second thoughts, which suggest it will now agree to the Philippine pleas and commute the sentences. China will thus be seen to win Filipino hearts if not minds by appearing magnanimous.

In which case, two lives will have been saved. But at what cost to the nation? It had already been made clear by the government in Manila that its absence from the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Norway was due to its concern to gain favor with China and convince it to commute the death sentences. That just might have been a worthwhile trade off if there had actually been a trade. But a naïve Aquino surrendered Philippine democratic principles without getting anything in return. Its boycott of the Oslo ceremony was a fruitless gesture.

Next, what was widely interpreted as yet another kowtow to Beijing also related to the death sentences case was the deportation to China rather than Taiwan of alleged Taiwanese smugglers. This was taking the logic of One-China policy to an extreme which can only discourage Taiwanese from interacting with the Philippines. Taiwan is a major employer of Philippine workers and potential source of manufacturing investment than mainland China.

Now the originally rejected visit of Vice-president Binay to China adds another layer of grovel. It begs the question: how many Filipinos does China have to sentence to death before Manila agrees to drop some of its South China Sea claims in return for clemency?

For sure those arrested in this case were likely young and stupid mules used by the drug trade bosses who themselves almost invariably escape detection or are rich enough to bribe their way out of trouble. But that is the same everywhere – as several young Australians have found to their cost in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.

For sure, many Filipinos oppose the death penalty in principle. But is a tearful Binay to be dispatched to Texas or somewhere else next time a Filipino faces the death penalty in the US?

The concern for life would also be rather more convincing if the Philippines had a better record of protecting the lives of visiting foreigners or showed more determination to resolve the many outstanding cases of murders of local journalists. Indeed, given the level of murders and general state of security in many parts of the country it will come as particular surprise to Chinese to see how far the leaders will go to save the lives of two drug smugglers. Are they sincere? Or is this just another act in the never enduing soap opera of Philippine politics?

Noynoy may not be entirely to blame for the nation's groveling foreign policy. Much rests with another "nice guy," Foreign Secretary Alberto Romulo, son of the late Carlos P. Romulo, a UN founder and long-serving foreign minister in the post 1945 era. The younger Romulo, now 77, is popular enough on the Asean golf, karaoke and photo-op circuit but despite years in the job has yet to leave a mark. He is likely soon to move on at last but Noynoy's instinct will likely be to find a Romulo clone.

Meanwhile Noynoy's instinct for soft-centered compromise is being demonstrated in other ways which suggest he does not have the capacity to push for the radical and controversial changes the nation needs if it is to lift its game. While still putatively supporting the Reproductive Health legislation, Noynoy has declined to give it priority and has proposed his own bill that stresses poverty reduction over family planning. Given that the bill's chances of passage – 13 years after originally proposed – are poor in the first place, at the least this will delay help for the poor who want access to contraception and related services and at worst delay the matter to give the Catholic Church the time to twist the arms of enough congressmen to defeat it yet again.

For sure, Noynoy has been left a difficult situation thanks in part to his predecessor's stacking of the Supreme Court and other key posts with friendly faces. That is certainly making the war on past corruption more difficult. But after months he has yet to show that he has the will to use his popularity and the size of his mandate to make tough decisions. Indeed, the current episode suggests he is more determined to keep his "nice guy" image than take tough decisions. Asia Sentinel

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