Against China: The face of a new nationalism

Last week, we stood in total awe as a flotilla of small Filipino fishing boats headed toward Scarborough Shoal, a disputed crop of rocks in the West Philippine Sea visible only at low tide, basically to assert the rights of Filipino fisherfolk to fish in that area. As they sailed into the open sea from Masinloc town in Zambales, the slow-moving boats led by the “Atin Ito” civil society coalition were shadowed by more than a dozen Chinese vessels seeking to prevent their entry into the lagoon and the surrounding waters that China claims as its own.

The spectacle of a hegemonic China militantly patrolling its presumed maritime borders to ward off small fishers from a tiny neighboring country was cinematic in its impact on the public consciousness. This is the stuff of which patriotic films are made, celebrating sheer underdog courage in the face of a fully armed bully. Small wonder the event made the front pages and headlines not only of the local press but also of the world’s media.

I never thought there would come a time when Filipino nationalism would be trained explicitly against China, rather than its usual target, the United States. But it is fascinating that in doing so, those who have made this move feel almost obliged to acknowledge in the same breath the continuing threat from American imperialism—if only to distinguish their nationalist message from the dominant discourse of American propaganda. Criticizing China is still a touchy issue, especially in the Philippine Left for whom the so-called threat from “Red China” was once a signifier of US-instigated anticommunist propaganda. But that was long before China itself became a dominant player in the global capitalist system.

Coming of age during the impetuous years of the ’60s, my generation had formed its signature activism in the struggle against the complex machinations of American imperialism. As undergrads at the University of the Philippines, we spent as much time in teach-ins outside the classroom as in our formal classes, discussing the reality of the US war of aggression in Vietnam and the role that the American bases in Clark and Subic played in the conduct of that unjust war.

The education we got outside the prescribed curriculum led us, even more importantly, to a critical examination of the various ways by which American neocolonialism worked its way into our existing governmental system, the economy, the media, and, indeed, the educational system as a whole. Those heady days of our youth marked the reawakening of Filipino nationalist consciousness—and America was its singular target.

Not a semester passed when a rally before the US embassy would not be mounted by students from Manila’s leading universities. No matter what the issue was, these protests inevitably ended up in that narrow strip of land fronting the American embassy.

Ironically, it was also in this contested space, protected by the city government’s police force, that hundreds of US visa-seekers congregated daily, waiting to be interviewed. As a participant in those rallies, I recall being disturbed by that scene. To me, it was a reminder that our activist vision for our nation’s future—a future free from America—was not shared by many of our people. Then as now, that contradiction continues to haunt my thoughts about nationalism, independence, migration, and development.

On the same week that our little “army” of intrepid fisherfolk made their way to the disputed shoal to deliver supplies to their fellow fishers and reassert their right to fish freely in what they consider their traditional fishing ground, something else was happening in my neck of the woods in Orani, Bataan, where I’ve been staying much of the week since I retired. An entire rental van filled with women, mostly young mothers, left one early morning for Manila on the first leg of a long journey to Saudi Arabia. In Saudi, they are supposed to work for a company that provides housekeeping to homes, condos, offices, hospitals, etc. Many of them, originally from farming families, may end up working as caregivers or elderly-sitters.

The program of sending out Filipino workers for overseas contract employment continues unabated—half a century since it was first introduced by Ferdinand Marcos Sr. purportedly as a stopgap economic measure. Today it is common to see farmlands all over the country lying idle, awaiting conversion to nonagricultural use. The proceeds from their sale permit small farming families to pay the fees and pre-travel expenses of family members who are going abroad to work.

Our fisherfolk may one day prefer to give up fishing altogether and look for work abroad than have to play cat-and-mouse with China’s coast guard every time they head for rich fishing waters claimed by China. But maybe not just yet: Our people grow in courage when threatened. To China, the real enemy is America; yet they view Filipinos crossing their imaginary nine-dash line in a vast ocean as a threat. They’re flexing their muscles on the wrong target.

As Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew once astutely observed, “The more they [China] impose themselves on their smaller neighbors, the closer their neighbors get to America, as an insurance, offering the Americans facilities for their aircraft carriers to come and visit.” (“One Man’s View of the World,” 2013. p. 53)