Is China losing Duterte?

DEMAND AND SUPPLY - Boo Chanco - The Philippine Star

With Duterte, you can never be sure if he is joking, indulging in theatrics or dead serious when it’s about China. He blows hot and cold.

Last week, he warned Beijing that he would not withdraw Philippine ships from disputed waters, even if China killed him. The Philippines has two ships in the West Philippine Sea which were roving around Kalayaan islands and Mischief Reef.

“I will not retreat. Kill me if you want to kill me, I will be here. This is where our friendship will end,” Duterte warned.

Yet, just days before that, Duterte seemed to be appeasing China, specially after what he called was an offensive tweet from Foreign Secretary Teddyboy Locsin. Duterte said we owe China a debt of gratitude for the COVID vaccines they donated and sold us.

A political analyst from the Rand Corporation, a US defense think tank, wrote an article that seems to take Duterte’s moves at face value… that China might have lost the Philippines because of Beijing’s assertiveness in the West Philippine Sea.

There might be some of that, but I have a strong feeling Duterte theatrics is mainly what it is because the 2022 election is just around the corner. He cannot run for re-election, but he wants his anointed one to win for protection.

China is Duterte’s chink in his armor. If the opposition is able to picture Duterte or his anointed as China’s Manchurian candidate, that might just turn the incumbent advantage around.

Notice too that Duterte is not cursing the United States as much as he used to. He has to know Filipinos love the United States and hates China. Duterte’s China lapdog image has not dented his popularity so far, but it just might, specially if things get ugly at the WPS.

Last year, SWS surveyed 1,555 people and the US received a net trust rating of +42. “Net trust in the United States has been positive since SWS first surveyed it in December 1994.”

Net trust rating for China on the other hand, fell from “poor” to “bad” going down from -27 in December 2019 to -36 in July 2020. SWS said, “Net trust in China has been positive in only nine out of 53 surveys since SWS first surveyed it in August 1994.”

Filipinos are not amused when Duterte said he asked Xi Jinping to just make the Philippines a province of China. Neither are Filipinos happy to hear Duterte say he just loves Xi Jinping.

Filipinos understand Duterte when he says he doesn’t want a war we cannot win with China. But they also expect their President to speak up for our rights and not say our arbitral win was just a piece of paper that can be trashed.

It is difficult to see where this administration really is with China. Duterte says one thing, the defense and foreign affairs secretaries say another. Over the past weeks, Secretary Locsin has issued diplomatic protests over Chinese ships in the WPS almost daily.

Maybe there is a real turning point in the relationship, even with Duterte. The much hoped for economic aid from China has been puny compared to Japan.

Japan’s ODA, which consists of low-interest loans and grants, is worth $11.2 billion. China has only been able to come up with $600 million.

In a sense, Duterte tried to pimp the country by putting the arbitral decision on the back burner in exchange for Chinese economic aid. He took a hint from Cory-era former  foreign secretary Raul Manglapus who said, with reference to the US, that “if rape is inevitable, lie back and enjoy it.” For Duterte with reference to China, he wants money too.

I don’t know why we get leaders like that. But we know from coverage of rape cases that the defense will always try to prove the victim stopped resisting at some point and enjoyed it. In dealing with world powers, our leaders ought to complain like hell nonstop when the powers are raping us.

In any case, the Rand analyst is of the view that “Duterte now recognizes, in spite of his continued rhetoric to the contrary, that China is no friend, and the Philippines needs its long-standing security ally — the United States — after all.”

The Rand analyst thinks “Duterte’s Sept. 23, 2020 speech at the United Nations General Assembly was another indication he had turned the corner on China. He directly addressed the issue of South China Sea disputes by noting the 2016 ruling was ‘beyond compromise,’ adding ‘we firmly reject attempts to undermine it.’”

Sounds like Secretary Locsin wrote the speech, but Duterte read it. I am not sure the analyst is correct to say it showed Duterte’s position against China was hardening.

“Beijing has only itself to blame if it has lost the opportunity to pull the Philippines out of the US orbit. China’s aggressive behavior in the South China Sea has made it virtually impossible for Duterte to push his pro-China and anti-US agenda,” the analyst’s paper pointed out.

“Moreover, Beijing’s growing assertiveness has only made it more difficult for Duterte to overcome pervasive anti-Chinese sentiment among his own country’s population. Nor has he been able to assuage the concerns of the staunchly pro-US Philippine defense establishment, which sees China as Manila’s top threat…

“Duterte now has little room left to maneuver. China’s aggressive approach to the South China Sea has severely undermined the credibility of his pro-China policies.”

Has China really lost Duterte? Or are Duterte’s antics pure theatrics precleared with China? After all, Duterte once revealed that Xi Jinping promised to protect him from any plan to remove him from office. They are that close. BFF, it seems.

With so much at stake, it is talked about that China will likely finance a candidate next year. The Manchurian Candidate will likely be someone endorsed by Duterte. There is so much China needs to protect — from business to security, they must make sure Malacanang remains in friendly hands.

We have to vote wisely next year. We can’t risk becoming an official or unofficial province of China.



Boo Chanco’s e-mail address is [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @boochanco

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