• Chinese tourist arrivals and the Marawi siege

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    MAURO GIA SAMONTE

    THE Marawi siege by the Maute and Abbu Sayaf groups began on May 25, 2017, the very day President Rodrigo Duterte was concluding an arms deal with President Vladimir Putin of Russia. The incident, evidently catching the Philippine President by surprise, immediately appeared to augur worse things to come for the country.

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    For this writer particularly, the attack on Marawi by Muslim jihadists was extremely alarming. I had always been of the mindset that something closely similar to the Syrian civil war needs to be crafted by way of advancing the United States’ touted pivot to the Asia Pacific region. The MILF secessionist movement which gained momentum with the conclusion of the Mindanao peace talks in Kuala Lumpur in 2008 appeared to be the impetus for the reinvigoration of US moves to re-establish military bases in the Philippines. An MILF takeover in Mindanao would require the United States to deal with a Muslim political entity instead of the Philippine Senate which had abrogated the US-RP Military Bases Agreement in 1991. The US indicated this scenario when a top element of the US State Department made representation with President Joseph Ejercito Estrada in 1999, speaking in President Bill Clinton’s stead, enjoining him not to proceed with his plan to crush the MILF mother fortress, Camp Abubakar. Erap refused the US importuning – thereby learning the lesson that in the Philippines, if you refuse American dictation, you don’t stay in power as President. Two months after President Estrada crushed Camp Abubakar, he was deposed.

    This fact could not have escaped the sharp perceptions of President Duterte; he had better watch out or he will be the next Philippine President to be kicked out of power by the United States.

    A most interesting element of the Marawi siege is that it happened just as President Duterte was concluding with Russian President Putin a deal for the supply of arms to the Philippines. It was Russia which US President Donald Trump was actually intending to hit when he ordered the 59 Tomahawk missile target strikes against a Syrian airfield barely a month ago. Now, with the Marawi City attack by the Muslim extremist militants with avowed connections with the Islamic State that had been contending against the Assad forces in Syria taking place at the very moment President Duterte was concluding that arms deal with President Putin, I cannot avoid perceiving – or at least conjecturing – that the US was launching a strike akin to the 59 Tomahawk missiles target strikes in Syria, that is, against Russia.

    And that conjecture could not but raise the concern that the Philippines was now being turned into a scenario in the Asia Pacific region as Syria had been in beginning 2011 in the Middle East: the country as a battleground between the US and Russia in the lead-up to World War 3.

    This was no doomsday perception. A year ago, top leaders of the Pentagon had been worrying that talks between Russia and the US had completely collapsed and that World War 3 was inevitable. With the Marawi City attack, was not that world conflict doing a full circle?

    It is in these circumstances that the increase of Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines must come into play. According to the data provided by the tourism department, of the top five markets for Philippine tourism, Chinese visitors have registered the highest increase in arrivals, 57.3 percent. According to some reports, Chinese tourists go as much for the country’s world famous white beaches as for its casinos, to which Macau gamblers particularly flock to, as a consequence of the anti-corruption drive in Macau.

    And yet, as I have pointed out in a recent past article, the overall tourist arrivals in the Philippines registered a drop of nearly 50 percent in the first quarter of the year, compared to last year. What does this indicate? That in bad times for the Philippines, China appears as a beacon of hope for better times to come.

    On June 29, 2017, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi jointly met the press in which it had been stressed that the improved friendly relations between China and the Philippines have already resulted in significant benefits for the country, to wit: the signing of 22 cooperation documents in infrastructure, economy, trade, agriculture, energy, drug control, and tourism. In that same conference with the press, both foreign ministers affirmed that today, China has become the largest trading partner of the Philippines. The huge fruits and vegetables export deal by the Philippines with China was already in implementation; and the construction by China gratis et amore of two additional bridges across the Pasig River is about to get underway.

    Although in an article that appeared in the South China Morning Post on July 4, 2017 the Philippine foreign secretary warned that “outside influences” could turn Southeast Asia into “a theater of political rivalry”, still and all China’s evident distancing itself from aggressive forms of armed world conflict is assurance enough that Cayetano’s warning – which is this writer’s prime concern as well on the issue – will not come about.

    The Marawi siege might have been crafted to serve US world war objectives, but China has come to serve the ends of peace. This appears to be the message of the great increase in Chinese tourist arrivals in the Philippines.

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