Poverty or weaponry?

Weaponry or poverty? was first published on 10 May 2019.

QUITE a startling quote—Foreign Affairs Secretary Teddy Boy Locsin on Twitter: “… Every country can speak whatever is on its mind. What [China] says should not determine foreign policy but it should inform the national budgetary process that we gotta stop throwing money at poverty and throw it at weaponry….”


He was reacting to Sen. Panfilo Lacson’s own Twitter swipe, saying: “SFA Teddy Boy, a wide reader that you are, I just thought you might have skipped this one which shows the mindset of China on WPS (West Philippines Sea). For whatever it is worth, I hope it will further enrich your perspective from the point of view of foreign policy…”


The "one" Lacson referred to was the “transcript of an interview with China’s then Maj. Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong, who discussed Beijing’s ‘cabbage strategy’ during the 2012 standoff with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal. Zhang recalled how the swarming of Chinese ships forced Filipino fishermen to leave and prevented any other ship from entering.”


Locsin has also attracted brickbats for his other public pronouncements on China’s aggression in WPS, one of which came from celebrity entertainer Regine Velazquez, who posted, also on Twitter:


“Ang akala ko pa naman matalino ka. Ako ay simpleng tao lamang na may simpleng pagiisip. These people are invading our territory they are not just taking food sinisira nila ang ating karagatan!!!!”


Velasquez was responding to one of Locsin’s April 16, 2019 Twitter posts, saying: “I am not going down in history as clam defender, okay? It’s a complaint; we’re looking into it; but these are just fucking food; no one goes to war for clams (maybe oysters of Locquemariaquer) but they just happen to be OUR food. They should pay for them like in fish market.”


Locsin’s ideas stand on shaky ground. Firstly, that Chinese nationals looting clams in our seas is not a shoplifting issue alone, one that security guards or the police may competently address. More than anything, it adds to the growing list of territorial transgressions with which a supposedly sovereign country has been hit by another, ours being at the receiving end of violations we ourselves have chosen to ignore. The charge Lacson lobbed at him can also apply here: If Locsin is in the dark concerning a revealing foreign policy-related gossip, the more his oido on marine science and the environment is likely to be suspect. Those clams were reportedly planted by Filipino scientists, not only to help the endangered species recover, but also to regenerate the corals in the area. Additionally, media has been reporting this poaching for years.


Secondly, throwing money at poverty may not be an option that is up to government’s budgetary process to consider. At least not — say never — if one is to follow faithfully the intent of the Constitution. In theory, the purpose of stacking the House of Representatives (wielding the power of the purse) with party-list members (representing the so-called marginalized sectors of society) is precisely to ensure that poverty issues get priority status on any congressional agenda.


Locsin, sure, is right: weaponry is very important. But up to a point. He cannot create the impression that promoting security and fighting poverty are conflicting ends, and that our government has become bankrupt that it cannot spend for both.


For countries like the Philippines that for decades, even centuries, have been battered and exploited by colonial powers, the twin goals of promoting security and eradicating poverty justify the existence of their governments. To succeed in one and fail in the other does not make those governments half-successful. It still makes them a total failure.


The notion that weapons will save us from ruin, as Locsin appears to suggest, is a misplaced warning sign. It leads us to think as if we are pitting Jerry the mouse against Tom the cat in a sprint contest. We can arm and root for Jerry up to a point, but there is no chance he can outrun Tom. There must be ways around a competition that level it for the small guy, like a skills challenge, where the one who makes more friends from the gallery wins it. It is incumbent upon the skillful competitor, whose ability merits him the title of a diplomat, to influence a world view where neither Tom nor Jerry sets the rules. Instead, the gallery sets and imposes the rules.


It is also possible that Locsin, like many among Filipinos, has grown tired of seeing sluggish results from anti-poverty programs. But the way to go is to strengthen them, not to scrap them. Lest we all forget, solving poverty provides answers to almost every problem a country can have, including insecurity, as it enables government to manage the country’s internal and external threats effectively.

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