AS we prepare to turn to the last page of the 2015 calendar, the impression that the world is sliding toward uncontrollable chaos is difficult to dismiss. It is an impression that is probably completely accurate.
The bad news seems to be happening almost too quickly to comprehend. A perfect example was the shooting down of a Russian military plane by trigger-happy Turkish forces yesterday, which happened at about 6:00 pm our time here in Manila, just as a completed page of our world news section was about to be turned over to the printers.
It wasn’t quite a “stop the presses” moment, but almost, and when a cheesy plot device from 1940s-era detective novels becomes a part of the daily workflow, it is probably time to be at least a little bit concerned about the state of the world.
Of course, in the Philippines it is considered impolite to suggest that what happens on the other side of the planet should worry us here in our pleasant little corner of the tropics, because we have an economy that is well-protected from external shocks from our healthy consumer consumption and remittance inflows, and God and international law are on our side when it comes to other thorny problems, like those pesky Chinese who won’t stay out of our part of the ocean. Our relatively stable innocuousness will continue to make the Philippines an attractive option amidst turmoil elsewhere, and while there are things that need to be improved, we can take comfort that we should be able to continue to point to visible indicators like our growing crop of casinos, condominiums and themed eateries as signs that things are going in the right direction.
That’s the standard template for commentary on how the rest of the world affects the Philippines (the short form is, “Not at all”), and it is what the government and the more optimistic among the country’s opinion leaders will still be saying as the whole house burns down around us. A more useful reaction, however, may be controlled panic.
There are a couple of big developments that have not gotten much attention here while we have been distracted by other, essentially unimportant issues like the ‘West Philippine Sea’ and our excessive number of uninspiring and virtually identical options for the country’s next president. We ignore these other, much larger issues at our peril, because they are likely to have negative consequences for the Philippines very soon.
The first is the likely outcome of the upcoming climate summit in Paris (it begins on Monday), which can probably be described with a single word, “failure.” After the 2009 Copenhagen climate talks failed to develop anything more substantial than an agreement to wait a few years and try again, hopes were high that the Paris talks would finally produce a practical global agreement on reducing emissions and limiting global warming to a more manageable level. Going into Paris, however, those expectations have been progressively dashed, and over the past two weeks or so, it has become clear that the single most important thing any climate agreement needs in order to be effective – some kind of enforcement mechanism – has absolutely no chance of becoming a reality. For the Philippines, which ranked fourth in the world’s top five countries affected by weather-related disasters (behind China, the US, and India, and ahead of Indonesia) in a recent UN study, that means the prospects of getting substantial help to mitigate the risks of climate-related calamities are very poor, and the very heavy drag that natural calamities impose on the country’s economy and quality of life will persist.
The second is the breakdown of Europe. Besides turmoil created by the war in Syria – which is directly responsible for the rapid rise of Daesh and other Islamist terrorists and the refugee crisis, and is quickly turning into this century’s proxy for the ancient enmity between Europe’s eastern and western spheres – the grand socialist experiment of the post-World War II era is breaking down rather quickly. It is shifting away from the collective back toward nationalism. This may not be a bad thing for neocolonies like the Philippines and some of our other neighbors in this part of the world in the long run, but there will be a long period of instability in which Europe generally is not going to be a particularly useful market or source of investment.
The third is the rise of China in place of America. While the US is busy tearing itself apart domestically through increasing class and political polarization, China has been steadily filling the vacuum, and is now right on America’s doorstep: In news earlier this week, it was announced that the long-delayed dream of a sea-level canal across Central America – something that has occupied the imaginations of engineers and Western political powers since the middle of the 19th century – will start to become a reality toward the end of next year, when construction by a Chinese-led consortium of the $50 billion project will begin in Nicaragua.
The Panama Canal farther south, which the new canal will essentially replace, is in many ways a symbol of American geopolitical might, and its construction (completed in 1914) could be considered the start of the “American Century.” China’s new canal – and it really will be China’s because the consortium building it will have a concession to operate it for up to 100 years – puts an end to that, and heralds the start of a new century, one for which the Philippines is in no way prepared, nor is likely to be, given the dim prospects for actual change or progress suggested by the pretentious aspirants for the country’s highest office.