UNTIL the China visit of President Rodrigo Duterte in October last year, he had nothing to show by way of good governance but the illegal drugs war early on in his administration. For all the grim mass slaughter of poor folk, popularized in the media as extra-judicial killings, he earned the respect of a good bulk of the Filipino populace less informed on the issues of human rights violations and mindless trampling of due process entailed in the killings. How phenomenal had it been that while little people’s blood littered the streets of the Manila metropolis and certain provinces, the President’s approval rating rose to a staggering 84 percent? That 84 percent made up mostly of petty middle-class and upper lower-class elements regard the Duterte killings as their salvation from the scourge of such crimes as bag-snatching, akyat-bahay, other forms of theft, robbery, murder and rape.
The more informed sectors of society, however, particularly the church people and advocates of human rights and civil liberties, instantly condemned the killings, and their criticisms of Duterte ventilated widely in the media rippled into the international community which issued similar condemnation of the viciousness of the Duterte anti-drugs war.
The latest flak was the New York Times editorial which called for international sanctions against Duterte such as economic blockade. That editorial was front-paged by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which Duterte has branded, together with ABS-CBN, as “bastos” media. Vice President Leni Robredo contributed her piece by issuing a video the to a meeting in Vienna of a United Nations commission, criticizing Duterte’s anti-drugs war, an evident heightening of a brewing popular move against the President. A coup in the making?
All the above constituted the tight fix President Duterte was in. And then came that March 16, 2017, visit of Chinese Vice Premier Wang Yang, who brought a huge package of financial assistance and investment commitments that China had assured the President during his visit to Beijing in October 2016. With assurances Wang that those Chinese commitments were up for final implementation, Duterte could sigh with great relief.
Duterte was given reason to boast to his critics that he’s good at something much more than extra-judicial killings. Indeed, the economic package Wang brought consisted mainly of: an import deal of agricultural products from the Philippines worth $1 billion; a projection of Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines breaching the 1 million mark, to possibly generate an additional P21 billion in tourism revenues; and financial developmental assistance, not loans, for the construction of two bridges across the Pasig River. For its projected increase of arrivals of its nationals in the Philippines, China necessarily embarks on assisting the Duterte administration venture into infrastructure projects in order to accommodate those arrivals. What better deal can the country get? China itself programming the increase of Chinese tourists coming to the Philippines and China itself doing infrastructure to make sure those Chinese tourists are very well accommodated. And all that, gratis et amore.
I hasten to point out the foregoing because certain quarters prattle on about President Duterte assuming this appeasing stance toward China in exchange for Chinese investments. This is not quite true. The construction of those two bridges across the Pasig River is totally at China’s expense. I still have to get the details of the plan to develop for tourism the Balatan and Pasacao regions in Camarines Sur, but definitely some 12 infrastructure projects planned by the Duterte government have been opened for Chinese investors to buy into.
And in any case, this active Chinese involvement in the economic development of the country is what seems to be the ace President Duterte has up his sleeve in contending with moves to oust him from power. But a sure anathema to genuine Chinese concern for assisting the Duterte government in achieving Philippine prosperity is the perennial interference, nay, active machination, by the United States in Philippine affairs in order to make sure that Philippine development is equitable to US development. For this reason, from the period of the Philippine Commonwealth all the way to the present, no Philippine President has ever got elected who was not a US boy, and no elected President ever stayed in power who was defiant of US wishes.
Upon the preceding yardstick, we evaluate the question: How long can Chinese concern prop up Duterte in office? That he ever got elected President testifies that of the five presidential candidates in the May 2016 elections, Duterte was the US boy and that his stay in the presidential post is dependent on whether or not the United States wants him to stay. In other words, if Duterte keeps his seat up to the end of his six-year tenure, it will only mean that the United States has allowed it; otherwise, President Duterte goes.
So now here is China, offering no mean assistance, both credits and grants, for the economic development of the country. How long can it maintain this magnanimous gesture without getting fettered by the increasing animosity between Duterte and the United States? As current events indicate, that animosity is now bound to worsen. In the event it does, meaning when ultimately the US decides to do to Duterte what it did to Erap, how will China handle the situation? Is China bound by any rule to come to Duterte’s rescue in that eventuality?
In 1986, when the animosity between President Ferdinand Marcos and the United States over the former’s increasing the rentals on US military facilities in the Philippines produced the EDSA I uprising, the Soviet Union to which President Marcos had begun developing friendly relations with—as Duterte now has now to China—through its ambassador, congratulated the former early for what was believed to be the Marcos victory in that year’s snap presidential polls. As the Cory civil disobedience campaign would shortly frustrate the popular will expressed in those polls to the extent of denying Marcos the constitutional mandate earned for a continued term, the early congratulations to Marcos announced by the Soviet ambassador turned out to be a most embarrassing diplomatic faux pas. In the case of Duterte now, would China risk incurring just that embarrassment suffered by the Soviet Union when it congratulated President Marcos for his eventually nullified announced victory?
In the first place, to whom is China that very generous assistance to? Is it President Duterte or is it the Filipino people?