'Mother's boy' rock solid in tense times

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 May, 2012, 12:00am


Philippine President Benigno Aquino is ungainly and balding, and was even sneered at as spineless, mentally retarded and a mother's boy when he ran for office two years ago.

He was, in short, the unlikeliest president to stand up to China.

But for the past month Aquino has turned a deaf ear to Beijing's demand to remove Manila's tatty coastguard vessels from Scarborough Shoal, known as Huangyan Island in China.

On Wednesday Aquino broke his silence about the dispute and told a gathering of businessmen - alumni from America's top universities: 'I am not empowered to give up any part of our territory ... Our constitution actually prohibits it.' The hotel ballroom erupted in applause at his candour and bluntness.

It showed how much Aquino has grown into the office of the president and stamped it with his own character. His administration has surprised everyone by actually putting former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the former poll chief in jail, pending trial for poll sabotage. The Supreme Court chief justice has been impeached and is now on trial for non-disclosure of wealth, mainly because of Aquino and his lawmaker allies.

With the presidential plate full of concerns such as rising living costs and unemployment, the stand-off at Scarborough Shoal has come at a difficult moment - especially for someone who been called to task for being 'laid back' and whose critics even coined the word 'noynoying' - a play on his nickname Noynoy - to describe it.

It helped that the South China Sea dispute under Aquino has not been tainted with accusations of corruption in the two years he has been in power. His predecessor, Arroyo, is now facing a criminal charge over pay-offs regarding a national broadband deal with China's ZTE Corporation. She has pleaded not guilty.

Political columnist Jarius Bondoc claimed that ZTE was among the sweeteners given to Arroyo allies for the signing of a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) between the Philippine National Oil Company and the state-owned China National Offshore Oil Corporation and Vietnam Oil and Gas Corporation. A Senate investigation has since found that the area that was explored was all in Philippine territory and not an area under dispute.

The undertaking strained relations between the Philippines and fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and gave China a reason to also claim that area, Arroyo's critics said.

When Aquino assumed office, everyone assumed he would be weak in diplomacy. Even he said he was loath to travel. His handling of the Scarborough Shoal dispute, however, shows how much he and his government learned from the tragic hostage-taking of a bus full of Hong Kong tourists two months into his presidency. That incident left him and his administration looking clueless and naive in dealing with international incidents.

Manolo Quezon, the undersecretary for presidential communications development and strategic planning, told the Sunday Morning Post that the handling of the maritime dispute showed Aquino's presidential style.

'It basically shows how well he works with different sub-clusters [of officials]. Each cabinet member is working with him and advising him. The direction is clear [and there is] synchronicity between the professional diplomats and [palace] communications team and the cabinet as a whole. It really quite shows how well he works under pressure.'

Another thing that seems to be working for Aquino is his ability to think out of the box. The Philippines has had no ambassador in Beijing for months because the congressional Commission on Appointments has refused to confirm Aquino's choice - close family friend Domingo Lee. Some lawmakers doubted that Lee would make a good envoy because of his inability to speak English.

The absence of an envoy has irritated Beijing and exacerbated the dispute, sources in Manila's ethnic Chinese community told the Post.

On Thursday Aquino appointed Lee not as an ambassador but as a 'special envoy' for six months, with banker Cesar Zalamea. Ostensibly, Lee will be a 'special envoy for tourism and culture', and Zalamea a 'special envoy for investments'.

The unusual solution meant Lee and Zalamea were free to start dealing with Beijing immediately, without the need for congressional confirmation. Moreover Lee has been well received in Beijing and has access to senior officials because they know he has the president's ear and trust, sources say.

Aquino shared with his recent audience of businessmen how he finds fresh solutions. 'I won't say that I have mastered everything. I do still keep to the tenets that the start of all knowledge begins with admitting you don't know. And I also pride myself in being the consistent student so that I am not ensconced in a box where all that we are able to do is basically repeat the mistakes of the past. That we want to avoid.'

To Aquino, ownership of Scarborough Shoal is non-negotiable. Because of this, he noted to the businessmen: 'Right now there's a foreign government that calls us already mayabang [arrogant] and matapang [brave]. How many of us thought we would be labelled the same two years down the line?'

Aquino's aides say during his state visit to China in September last year he brought up the contentious topic of the South China Sea with President Hu Jintao .

'President Aquino initiated it and he mentioned that they had differences, but these differences should not deter us from moving forward,' his spokesman Edwin Lacierda said then. Lacierda added Aquino had told Hu '[as] this is a regional problem, it requires a regional solution'.

Quezon told the Post that Aquino was returning to the foreign policy laid down by his mother, late president Corazon Aquino, and succeeding presidents - Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada - that small nations of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations should move together on this issue. Arroyo 'sabotaged' that, he said, by signing the JMSU.

At the time of Aquino's visit to China there was already an undertow that threatened to drive relations between the two countries onto the rocks. All of China's big-ticket projects in the Philippines, such as the Northrail railway scheme and the national broadband network, had stopped due to allegations of overpricing and pay-offs.

It was in this atmosphere that Aquino addressed China's top businessmen in Shanghai. He said wistfully that 'before there was the People's Republic of China or the Republic of the Philippines, there were the Chinese and the Filipino people. Our ties go back centuries, people-to-people, to an extent that can literally be seen and touched'.

'There is a kind of granite we call Piedra China, which was used in centuries past as the ballast for junks and galleons that traded between your shores and ours. These junks and galleons braved rough weather and rough seas in search of prosperity,' he told them. These stones, now highly prized, are known locally as batong buhay, or living rock, he said.

Today, both countries find themselves quarrelling over a piece of rock in the South China Sea, about 230 kilometres from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

It's an opportunity for Aquino to make good his statement in Shanghai, that 'our ties of mutual interest and partnerships are unshakably firm' like a rock.