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Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

China, now esconced in the Big League, seeks to revive ancient “Silk Road” that brought it glory and prosperity in eras past. Its aim: to assume super-power status as Pax Americana trends toward isolation. With new markets China keeps myriad factories humming, thus lifting many more of its billion people out of poverty---smart strategy.

The ancient caravan route along the "Silk Road" as it began from ancient Xi'an in China all the way to Europe

President Duterte being welcomed to the Beijing Belt and Road Forum by President Xi Jinping


It’s often said that China always does everything big---in accordance with its size. The much-ballyhooed two day-forum, the “Belt and Road Forum (BRF)” in Beijing that has drawn many nations across the earth---super-powers such as Russia and the United States, middling-stature states like the Philippines, as well as needy countries in South America and Africa such as Chile and Kenya.

The glittering BRF event hosted by Chinese President Xi Jinping gathered 1,500 delegates, among them government leaders from over 130 countries, including 39 heads of state, among them the ASEAN leaders such as our President Duterte. Also present was Russian President Vladimir Putin, and all of them lined up to meet the host,  President Xi.   

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In making his grand debut on the world stage, President Xi has marshaled unprecedented generosity in extending loans to finance the development of various countries around the globe. As President Duterte points out, his Chinese counterpart has extended loans without conditionalities to various countries, including $20 billion to PH, as China’s contribution to the Asian region,  the ASEAN 10 and the world.  

For its super-global debut China has committed loans of about US$890B from the China Development Bank, to fund 900 BRF infrastructure projects worldwide, . Among the projects to be financed will be the construction of new railways, airports, ports, highways, etc. all across the various continents, spanning 65 countries. These countries represent 60% of the world’s global population, commanding around a third of global GDP.   

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China’s grand world debut at the BRF clearly aims to steal the limelight from the United States in what was once the American century---Pax Americana---and restore China’s preeminent role in centuries past---a Pax Chinois. With this international debut China seeks to open its arms to the world, thus providing a contrast to its keenest rival, the US. Under President Donald Trump, America has turned seemingly inward and isolationist, restrictive in trade, and shutting the doors of this new world order to immigrants from the old world.  

Moreover, by expanding its trade routes to their historic pre-eminence, China also seeks to gain NEW MARKETS---or sustain existing ones---so that they could continue to absorb the outputs of China's mighty and aggressive industries. Smart move, as these industries are expected to rescue China’s teeming millions from the frightful prospect of unemployment---and the subsequent unrest which this huge Communist nation cannot afford.

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China’s vast economic machinery has to continue grinding, and its exports have to continue finding new markets, so that its poverty levels all across this gigantic country could continue their welcome decline. As Manila Times writer Johnny Gatbonton pointed out recently, China’s poverty fell from almost 80% in 1981  to only 18%  by 2005.  He also noted that in China SOME  628 MILLION CHINESE MOVED INTO THE MIDDLE CLASS, thanks to its vast machines working overtime and full throttle.

But the biggest motivation for China is to wrest world leadership away from the United States and become the world's No. 1 Superpower. This it seeks to do by enticing new friends to line up for China’s huge loans that are being issued, in many cases, as with the Philippines, without any conditionalities, or so they say. This is something that the US, with its heavy fiscal imbalance, cannot afford to match.

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The glittering “One Belt, One Road” Forum in Beijing is being touted as China’s effort to revive its  fabled “Silk Road” in ancient times. German geographer Von Richthofen had written about this commercial phenomenon in 1877 as running from the Korean Peninsula and Japan to the Mediterranean Sea and on to Europe and northern Africa. 

The “Silk Road” was a famous trade route across this vast continent, with its merchants riding in camel caravans that used to carry products of ancient China, notably its silks and spices, from the ancient capital city of Xi’an to clear across the Mongol Empire and Siberia---to parts of Europe and even up to Russia.

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Some historians argue that the ancient Silk Road route was opened up by a legendary figure called Zhang Qian who brought enormous prosperity and rapid growth to the land during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 A.D.). But the nation reached its golden age of development in the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) that was established by a historical figure named Kublai Khan of the Mongolian Empire.

The limits of his Yuan kingdom were Mongolia and Siberia in the north;  South China Sea, Tibet and Yunron in the Southwest; Xinjiang and Central Asia in the Northwest, and even West Asia and Russia. The legendary Kublai Khan was said to have given the Italian explorer Marco Polo a hospitable welcome and a high post in the court.

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Maritime travel was ultimately bound to have a larger influence on the ebb and flow of human and commodity commerce in the great realm of China. Many Westerners, Chinese envoys and caravans, however, also traveled along this ancient trade route by camel caravans, as did eminent diplomats and great monks through desolate deserts, the biggest of which is the Gobi.  Travel and trade were freely carried out between East and West directly in the Mongol Empire.

It is this ancient route between East and West, reaching all the way to the Roman Empire in the heart of Europe---that seeks to link eastern China, central Asia, Russia and Europe in a gigantic trade alley--- that the current Chinese leadership wants to resuscitate, through the various modes of modern travel. THE GOAL IS POLITICAL VIA ECONOMIC---TO FIND NEW MARKETS FOR THE OUTPUT OF CHINA'S MYRIAD FACTORIES. 

Continuous factory work, in turn, will keep one billion Chinese happy and enjoying POST-REVOLUTION PROSPERITY AND UNPRECEDENTED HIGH STANDARD OF LIVING. And side by side, it is this fabled route all across Asia and Europe that modern-day China now seeks to revive---as it grapples for WORLD LEADERSHIP now that Pax Americana seems to retreat to its reclusive self.

Smart geo-political strategy as China makes a giant leap on the world stage. The recent huge international hoopla in Beijing over the fabled “Silk Road” is the stuff of ancient dreams.


Wednesday, May 10, 2017

President Duterte should have been warned not to mess with a woman with tousled mop-like hair, hook nose, wide horn-rimmed glasses and the inflexible zeal of a missionary---who’s Agnes Callamard. Look what messing with her got Digong: 45 nations, all members of UN's Human Rights Council, backed rights probe in PH by this iron lady. Only China proved to be Digong's reliable friend.


President Duterte is well-advised to look out for feisty battle-ax rights women with mop hairdo and horn rimmed glasses.

President Duterte should have been warned never to ignore women like Agnes Callamard, the UN Special Rapporteur on Extra-Judicial Killings  of the UN Special Committee on Human Rights---walking battle axes with tousled hair like it hasn’t been brushed in a good while, black horn-rimmed glasses and a grim determination on her righteous face. Mr. Duterte should have been forewarned that such women are dangerous and should be handled with care. 

Palace spokesperson Ernesto Abella tore his hair in upset over Callamard’s “unauthorized” presence here, but it would have been more sensible if the Palace had just ignored her brief visit. Because it made a big to-do about it, what happened since then was pure disaster for the Duterte administration: at the recent 16th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) in Geneva, 45 nations of the Human Rights Council of the UN supported the call for the Philippines to grant UNCONDITIONAL ACCESS to Callamard to probe deaths suspected to be EJKs, due to the Duterte administration’s bloody war against drugs.

ONLY CHINA, MR. DUTERTE’S ALLY AND FRIEND, OBJECTED TO THIS COLLECTIVE MOVE TO BACK UP CALLAMARD.  Quite a fiery international debut for the Philippine President.

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The UPR is termed “a state-driven voluntary process that involves all UN Member States under the auspices of the Human Rights Council (HRC), which aims to improve the human rights situation on the ground of each of the 193 Member States.” Under the auspices of the UPR, the human rights situation in all the 193 UN Member States is reviewed EVERY FIVE YEARS.  

In addition to the move of 45 countries to back up UN Special Rapporteur Callamard’s express intention to probe the rights situation in the Duterte administration, according to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) more than 30 countries have also expressed grave concern over the killings here in connection with the drug war. These critic-countries include the most advanced in the world, such as the US, the UK, France, Germany, Japan and many others.

The United Kingdom’s Mission to the UN in Geneva’s strong statement on the Philippine situation perhaps says it for all the other 192 UN member-states .Said the UK:  “We remain concerned about the high death toll associated with the campaign against illegal drugs, plans to reinstate the death penalty, to lower the age of criminal responsibility and barriers to the realization of indigenous peoples’ rights.”

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There’s no question that the Philippines is becoming the pariah of the international community when it comes to human rights and a lot of it stems from the Duterte administration’s refusal to play ball like other civilized members of the UN do.

Abella tried to do damage control by saying that the international concern over the Philippine government’s war vs. drugs is “misinformed,” but this defense sounds hollow as the question arises: who has caused the “misinformation,” in the first place?  Why has the Palace resisted any and all inquiries about its anti-drug war?

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Take a look at the impositions slapped by the Palace on the feisty Agnes Callamard.  To be allowed to come and investigate the situation here, the Duterte administration slapped three conditions on her as reported by media: that she engages in a public debate with Mr. Duterte, that he be allowed to ask Ms. Callamard questions, and that she takes an oath on the veracity of her findings. It’s easy to see that she could never win in that public debate with Mr. Duterte before an audience of his own choosing.

But really, why couldn't there have been just a quiet earnest conversation over coffee between the President and the mop-haired rights battle-ax for starters? I don't see why not: Mr. Duterte could have charmed her effortlessly. But now, the Palace is just too scared of the battle-ax. A pity. 

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The next session of the UPR will be in 2021. Would PH have recovered ground by then? A lot would depend on Mr. Duterte:  can he play ball with Callamard and what she represents, like a verified member of the UN body would, or will he act like one of those African potentates who have failed to mature in this aspect. To be sure, the drug war has to be won here in our country, but it cannot be at the expense of creating bigger problems, such as killing people as though they were worthless flies.

Sen Alan Peter Cayetano, who co-chaired the Philippine delegation to the recent UPR session in Geneva and who was just appointed DFA Secretary this afternoon, was quoted stressing in that UPR conference what Mr. Duterte had said at his 2016 State of the Nation Address, “…there can never been real, tangible and felt development without making our people feel secure. The Philippines shall implement a rights-based approach to development and governance, as it improves our people’s welfare. Human rights must work to uplift human dignity.”


Those words were vintage SONA 2016. But the query uppermost in the minds of many Filipinos these days is, what human dignity is being enjoyed by the nameless, faceless dead found sprawled on pavements these days---yet mere statistic in the ugly war against drugs? 

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

DRAMATIC REJECTION OF GINA LOPEZ IN CA VOTING, WHICH NOBODY COULD PREDICT, GIVEN NOMINATION'S CLIFF-HANGER STATUS. DUTERTE CABINET SPLIT ON GINA, AND IN THE END DIGONG WAS FORCED TO GIVE HER UP. GINA A SHOO-IN FOR THE SENATE NEXT ELECTIONS.



Nominated DENR Secretary Gina Lopez at this afternoon's CA confirmation hearing, which she failed to survive politically. 

No Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has ever faced the 24-member Commission on Appointments (CA) as controversially, with super-strong lobbying for and against the nominee, than the feisty straight-talking Regina "Gina" Lopez of the family that owns the ABS-CBN Network.
This afternoon's deliberation on Gina was the second before the CA, as she was initially rejected by it weeks back. President Duterte re-nominated her  and until this afternoon no one could second-guess the result of the voting conducted by the Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, chaired by Sen. Manny Pacquiao.  

Today's CA hearing was closely watched as the rules provide that after a second rejection, the nominee WOULD BE OUT---NO MORE RE-APPOINTMENT by the Chief Executive. It was make or break for Gina Lopez. 

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It was pandemonium outside the Senate with the incredible show of support to Gina by various environmental advocate groups, including those from the Left (a clear case of halo-halo ideologies). Frankly I had wondered who among the 12 senators and 12 representatives would have the guts to reject this bromide-spouting DENR appointee---considering that her influential family, with its powerful multi-media network and other corporations, including Meralco, could make or unmake political fortunes.

I myself had doubted if the CA members could really withstand the lobby pressures from her associates and cause-oriented sympathizers.  But DEFY THOSE PRESSURES the CA members did this afternoon in a STUNNING 16 against and 8 pro vote. It’s a most commendable  show of independence by the CA members.

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The Chamber of Mines that comprises corporations excavating our minerals from the belly of the earth and marketing them globally fought against Gina as it had never fought before. The Duterte Cabinet was also torn apart, but increasingly the group led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez prevailed over their left-wing colleagues. Dominguez's punch-line: that Gina Lopez ought to remain a terrific crusader for the environment, but she shouldn’t be DENR Secretary as this post demands a BALANCED APPROACH toward care and custody of the environment, on the one hand, and fostering the economy and livelihood on the other. 

Dominguez's argument gained traction as the dragon lady of the environment began spitting more fire and uttering things better left unsaid. One such assertion is that as Secretary she will ask the help of the NPAs in the provinces to carry out the care of the environment. I imagine that statement spooked the military and the politicians as well. 

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In the battle for Gina’s confirmation in the CA, media forces were clearly divided, some pushing for her confirmation while many more were outright against her. As the weeks drew on and Gina started appearing more strident and one-track minded, many more media came out openly against her.

The Chamber of Mines also painted a dark picture of a plunging PH economy due to near-standstill exports of minerals, should Gina be confirmed. Its members were particularly incensed after Lopez ordered an audit of various mining firms and then closed 23 of them without furnishing them a copy of the audit report. 

As Gina Lopez twisted in the CA, the mining industry did some soul-searching, which was good. The question was raised that we need to ask ourselves as Filipinos: how come other countries have become rich and prosperous and attained near-First World status, e.g., Australia, Canada and Brazil, on the strength of the mining industry, among other factors? The next question is, how did those countries strike the balance between conservation of the environment and precious natural resources, and pushing the economy as well with mining revenues?

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The question all patriotic Filipinos should ask themselves is: Did God endow our country with such mineral wealth (we're the richest in nickel and among the top producers of iron ore, and we have lots of gold) only for us to bury them forever as reserve assets. I SAY NO, LET'S MINE THESE PRECIOUS MINERAL WEALTH WITH DISCRIMINATION AND CARE, SO THAT THESE COULD BE PROFITABLE FOR FILIPINOS THROUGH THE GENERATIONS. 

Chamber of Mines Chief Artemio Disini points out that the industry employs over 200,00 people and mining taxes paid yearly amount to around P889 million annually, or 1.21 % of gross sales. Roughly 17-18% of  our gross income comes from mining, Disini asserts, but Gina counter-argues that it’s only .04 % .

Dr. Carlo Arcilla, Ph.D. chief of the UP Geological Institute and trained in the University of Chicago where he taught for ten years, argues on the other hand that mining companies "go where the government doesn’t": e.g., they build roads, schools, housing, etc., and that  the 'common good' does not exclude people.” Dr. Arcilla further asserts that the trouble is that “some people find sins in mining that are not its sins.” To which Gina Lopez retorts, reminding us about mining that pillages communities, “if our people suffer, then it cannot be good for us."

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After succeeding in blocking Lopez's appointment, it behooves the Chamber of Mines to deliver and improve its performance in protecting the environment that's still reeling from the abuses of irresponsible miners in the past. THE MEMORY OF CALANCAN BAY IN MARINDUQUE, DESTROYED PERHAPS FOREVER BY TAILINGS FROM A MINING COMPANY THERE IN THE MARCOS YEARS, REMAINS FRESH. 

Then too, it's good to remember that out of 13 provinces where mining is active, 10 of them REMAIN BELOW THE POVERTY LINE. The Chamber must look into this continuing tragedy amid the plentiful minerals in the earth's belly and unscrupulous exploiters.

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Personally I was against confirmation of Gina Lopez as I thought she's too one-track minded against mining--- whereas her post demands both protection of our environment AND responsible extraction of our minerals to provide livelihood for our people.  I thought there'd be no end to the debates on mining’s effects on the environment if Gina were appointed, as she's armed with A NATURALLY ADVERSARIAL STANCE vs. the mining companies. Her behavior at times also worries folks about her being a bit loony.  

Now that the Chamber of Mines' stand on Lopez was heard by the CA, the mining officials should prevail on all its members to act responsibly to protect the environment. Away from mining companies that blacken its name (being whispered about in corridors is the tendency of some foreign-operated companies to throw out the rules). .

The hearty debates on pros and cons of mining unite on one reality: the crying need to lift the great masses of our people from poverty.