IT could be that China, if ever, must be in a quandary in regard to dealing with President Duterte at the moment. The way things are shaping up, the President is about to face a crisis of survival in his post sooner than he may realize. When the crisis takes place — or hasn’t it actually started already, in fact? — it could certainly impact on the many investments China has made in the Philippines mainly as a result of Duterte’s turnaround in foreign policy. From an almost salaaming attitude towards the United States as showcased in the foreign policy of past Philippine presidents (except President Joseph Ejercito Estrada, and farther back in history, Dr. Jose P. Laurel), Duterte boldly steered Philippine foreign policy toward friendly and mutually beneficial relations with strong US antagonists China and Russia.
Particularly from his 2016 visit to China, President Duterte brought home a number of economic development and financial assistance packages benefiting the livelihood of workers in banana plantations, those various sectors of the productive forces dependent on tourism, and farmers whose vegetable and fruit produce now enjoy preference in the huge Chinese market. To ease traffic congestion in Metro Manila, two more bridges will be constructed across the Pasig River, one from Intramuros to Binondo, the other in Pantaleon, Pasig. These bridges, the groundbreaking for which has already began, will be erected a hundred percent at China’s cost, which means as far as the Filipino nation is concerned, it’s gratis et amore. During the visit recently by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on the occasion of the past APEC Summit, a total of 13 agreements on economic, technical and financial assistance packages were formalized in Malacañang witnessed by Li and President Duterte.
But a truly huge gain for both China and the Philippines is the huge amount of goodwill generated by these developments between them. By lifting its ban on Chinese travel to the Philippines, China has by now displaced South Korea as the number one source of tourist arrivals in the Philippines.
Under this atmosphere of genuine Chinese goodwill, the Philippines is out to gain further in terms of concrete economic benefits for its people. This becomes particularly true in light of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s vision of a shared future for the world community of nations. In such a vision, the Philippines has the potential of serving as fulcrum for its worldwide implementation. Both in the envisioned revival of the ancient maritime Silk Route in which the Philippines in the 15th century was a vital connecting link between East and West, and in the implementation of the Belt and Road initiative in which the country again is expected to play the same purpose, the Philippines just takes on a significant role in the overall scheme of world economic development.
Such a role is what is put in jeopardy by the ceaseless demonizing of Duterte. The phenomenon increases with every passing day. Not only do critics of his deadly drugs war continuously slam him for the alleged extrajudicial killings entailed by that war, but his more determined adversaries also have brought the matter all the way up to the International Criminal Court at the Hague. No Philippine president hasever been haled to court, much more in an international one.
Duterte is increasingly getting slammed for his deliberate failure to assert what are widely perceived as gains achieved by the country in its dispute with China over the South China Sea (also known as West Philippine Sea). In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favor over its claims to features in the South China Sea that are within the country’s exclusive economic zone. And then there is the raging controversy now about the President allowing China to conduct research work in Benham Rise (of late getting to be called Philippine Rise), ultimately leading to China giving Chinese names to certain features of the undersea region.
It seems this damning of Duterte is a necessary component of a visible effort to drive a wedge between China and the Philippines, particularly as concerns the issue of the South China Sea and the Benham Rise. From his words and deeds, one would deduce that President Duterte would rather settle the issue with China in a non-combative manner. For that reason, he sought to ignore the subject when he visited China in 2016. He got good results anyway, as pointed out above. You need only to build on those initial gains to set the country on the course of shared prosperity with the Chinese nation. And since that initial visit, the country has been moving on in just this direction. At the conclusion of the Marawi siege, it was a Chinese-donated firearm that snuffed the life of Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon, the head of one of two IS-instigated groups (the other one being the Maute group) which for five months seized the city and caused its devastation. In the reconstruction of Marawi, China was quick to donate tons of heavy equipment for the rehabilitation of the city.
But a truly damning accusation against President Duterte has just come out recently. The United States intelligence community, including the Central Intelligence Agency, has proclaimed him a threat to US national security in Southeast Asia. Again, never until now has such an evil epithet been attached to a Philippine president, and if Marcos who had not even been given that brand had to be deposed by the United States in order to give way to a US-friendly Philippine executive, then all the more must the US find reason to get rid of the “evil threat” pronto.
Against this background, I view the suddenness of the visit to the Philippines of the USS Carl Vinson, reputedly the biggest aircraft carrier of the United States Navy, accompanied by the USS Michael Murphy, a guided missile destroyer.
What seems to be going on? Why all of a sudden we’ve got giant US warships anchoring on Manila Bay?
I consider the visit a phenomenon, similar to the one I am suddenly prompted to think back on.
(To be continued tomorrow)