Duterte and China

There’s one topic on which President Duterte has admitted censoring his normally uninhibited language: China. “I’m sure, as your President,” he told his audience the other day at the inauguration of the new Davao International Container Port, “I would not lead you to trouble, or I would not cause you shame. There will be a time when I have to make a stand and I have to make it clear to China, ‘You know, every time you talk about sole ownership or even entitlements there (South China Sea), it’s something which is totally unacceptable to us.”

This is reassuring, and I’m certain the special treatment warms the heart of China. But, why can’t the President adopt the same restraint when dealing with international relations in general? This is a different arena from the national polity of which he is president; here he no longer speaks for himself but for the entire Filipino people.

As a nation, we will not always like what world bodies and their spokespersons may say about us. But, it is one thing to rebuff them in clear terms—indeed, there are sharp but diplomatic ways of doing so—and quite another to call them names, or question the reason for their existence.

What is to be gained—other than to gratify an impulse—from contemptuously calling a friendly country’s ambassador “gay”? Why call the United Nations “stupid” and “inutile” just because one of its rapporteurs has called our attention to the alarming human rights situation in the country? The Philippines is one of the original members of this world body, and, though it is far from being a world government, the UN is the closest thing humanity has to an international organization that is sworn to protect the world’s citizens from abuse, danger, and oppression.

As for the President’s attitude toward the United States, I find it puzzling, if not altogether wrong, to antagonize our country’s staunchest ally, particularly at this time. Admittedly, we have had a complex and sometimes troubled relationship with America, but that’s no excuse to heap scorn on its representative.

Like the President, I belong to a generation that America tried to mold in its image. The most visible result of that effort is the Westernization of our way of life. We don’t notice this until we meet our neighbors in the region. But, critical thinking—a legacy of the modern education system established by the United States—equally gave us the ability to question America’s imperial motives and to oppose its continuing domination of our economy and political life. The culmination of that struggle was the dismantling in 1991 of the US military bases on Philippine soil.

I still distinctly remember how, in the late 1980s, the defenders of the American bases tried to justify the need for a new military bases treaty.  They conjured images of a “Red China” gobbling up the Philippine archipelago if the Americans left. It was an argument that carried little weight in the face of the global decline of Soviet socialism and of China’s own troubles at home.

Little did we suspect that the equation could change dramatically in just 25 years. China has achieved unprecedented economic growth after opening its doors to the forces of global capitalism. The power and influence it wields today would not have been possible during Mao Zedong’s time. Today, China is driven less by an internationalist socialist ideology than by an aggressive Chinese nationalism that draws its strength from its economic clout as well as by its military capability.

Southeast Asia is just one of the regions over which state-backed Chinese capitalism has spread its wings. China has virtually colonized much of Africa, inundating its markets with cheap Chinese products, while draining the continent of its mineral resources to feed the Chinese economic machine. One of its most ambitious projects to date is the “New Silk Road Initiative to Central Asia and Europe.” This mindboggling complex of new roads, railroads, pipelines, and economic zones stretches from China to Europe. If one can imagine taking a train from Beijing to Spain, or from Beijing to Turkey—traversing a vast landlocked Central Asian continent hitherto insulated from the modern world—then one can get a good idea of the scale of Chinese ambition and the aggressiveness that drives it.

As expected, most everyone wants to be part of it. But, only a few would probably do so with closed eyes. Kyrgyzstan, a landlocked mountainous country that used to be part of the Soviet Union, lies strategically at the center of this Silk Road project. Its former prime minister, Djoomart Otorbaev, in an interview with Der Spiegel, thoughtfully reflects on the way the Chinese typically overrun a place: “They bring their own people, and they start by building what they want. And then if someone demands a permit, they bribe the relevant officials…. The Chinese lack soft power. They don’t understand that if you want to succeed in the long term, you need to win over people’s hearts.”

China does not care to spread socialism to other countries. Indeed, it doesn’t even care how the rest of the world is ruled or what kind of national leaders it deals with. What it cares about is to control other nations’ economies, period.

I hope President Duterte’s cautious demeanor vis-à-vis China is matched by a thoughtful understanding of the Philippines’ long-term geostrategic interests. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations may often appear as nothing more than a toothless, feel-good neighborhood association, and the United States may sometimes seem like an unreliable ally, but outside of these alliances, the Philippines would be putty in the hands of a resurgent China.

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