The rituals of sovereignty

Reporting on what transpired during the dialogue between President Duterte and China’s President Xi Jinping in Beijing last Thursday, Aug. 29, presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo gave a hyperbolic account of the encounter: “The President unequivocally, assertively, but [in a] friendly [manner], asserted the arbitral ruling… He [Mr. Duterte] said that the arbitral award is final, binding and not subject to appeal.”

I quote further from the Inquirer’s report on the Panelo press briefing: “He [Panelo] said that Xi’s firm stance on the matter was a signal for the President to stop bringing it up in their future meetings.”

This is fascinating. What we have is only Panelo’s version of the exchange between President Duterte and President Xi. I have looked at the reports on the same meeting by foreign news sources like the Chinese state news agency Xinhua, CNBC and Japan Times, but I have yet to see any reference to this supposed “unequivocal” assertion by President Duterte of the arbitral ruling.

Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez, who was present at the Duterte-Xi dialogue, told CNBC that President Duterte brought up the South China Sea issue with the Chinese president. “However, Dominguez did not specify whether the ruling was discussed,” CNBC noted.

This is not mere hair-splitting. Mr. Duterte’s recent visit to China, his fifth in three years, has been much touted because it is supposed to be the first time he would formally bring up the 2016 Hague arbitral ruling that invalidated China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea. We are certain that President Duterte did raise specific complaints pertaining to the Chinese presence in the disputed waters. Chief among these are the repeated intrusions this year of Chinese naval and survey vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the country’s southern tip, and the swarming by Chinese militia vessels of maritime features occupied by the Philippines.

But, any explicit reference to The Hague arbitral ruling would have been altogether different. It would have been a redemption, even if only symbolic, of this administration’s shameful failure to stand up to China’s arbitrary claims and aggressive actions in those waters we regard as ours.

The Chinese news agency Xinhua itself made no mention of the 2016 Hague ruling. What is clear is that any attempt to bring up the topic would have been stopped unless it was part of Mr. Duterte’s opening statement, which apparently it was not. The statement from China’s foreign ministry simply said: President Xi called on Manila “to put aside the dispute” and not be influenced by “external interference.”

Panelo’s overstated description of President Duterte’s performance at the Beijing talks was obviously meant for domestic consumption — a way of appeasing local concerns that the Duterte administration is slowly allowing the Philippines to be turned into a province of China.

In sociology, this is called “ritualism” — the act of going through the motions of expected behavior without actually believing in the goal that it is supposed to serve. As Panelo tellingly put it when asked if there’s going to be a repeat of this supposed display of sovereign bravado: “No more. We have already raised it. We will not raise it repeatedly.”

I derive the concept of “ritualism” from the American sociologist Robert K. Merton, who theorized that under conditions of “structural strain” — when society does not provide adequate means for attaining culturally valued goals — people tend to resort to various forms of adaptation. Ritualism is one of these.

Having gone through successive colonial subjugation, Filipinos place a high value on sovereignty. But, sometimes the means available for actualizing it are costly or impractical. The Duterte regime believes we have more to gain by bowing to China’s wishes than by insisting on our rights as a sovereign nation. But subservience to another country can never look good. It is a betrayal of the Constitution and, indeed, of everything the nation stands for. One therefore goes through the rituals of sovereign assertion.

Merton originally developed this theory to explain social deviance. But we can use it to examine the various options people resort to when existing conditions are not conducive to conformity. Apart from ritualism, there is “retreatism,” “rebellion” and “innovation.” In retreatism, individuals do not accept the validity of the goals and the means offered by society. They retreat from active participation in the affairs of society altogether.

In rebellion, people likewise reject both the prescribed goals and the means available to them, but instead of withdrawing from society, they actively promote a different set of goals and advocate a radical reorientation of one’s way of life. I used to think that perhaps Mr. Duterte was in the mode of the rebel bent on rejecting an outmoded approach to governance and substituting a progressive alternative to what is conventional. Well, he is not.

Innovation, I think, was what the P-Noy administration embarked upon when, against all odds, it decided to bring the dispute with China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. Upholding the value of sovereignty and the duty to assert it when threatened, it did what most of Asean regarded as unthinkable: Sue China. We won that case. Alas, the duty to make that victory matter fell on the lap of Mr. Duterte, who, unable to appreciate its value, finds himself nevertheless under pressure to go through the motions of protecting the nation’s sovereignty.