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Opinion

Disgraceful

FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Beijing is in a quandary regarding its relations with the Philippines.

With all that has happened in the South China Sea where Beijing demands we recognize its fictional “9-dash line,” Filipino public opinion has significantly hardened against our big neighbor. Overwhelming public opinion supporting mandatory military training for college students does not happen in a vacuum. It should be put in the context of rising concern over the possibility of Chinese aggression.

Over the past year, Philippine foreign policy has turned sharply pro-US. We not only reaffirmed our commitment to the VFA, we added EDCA sites to the list of facilities open for use by the US military. While China, in its usual ham-fisted manner, surrounded Taiwan with warships last week to show its displeasure for Western political leaders meeting with Taiwan’s president, American and Filipino armed forces were conducting their largest joint military exercises to date.

Officially, Manila maintains that its cozier security relationship with the US has nothing to do with tensions building at the Taiwan Strait. Indeed.

Beijing insists on shooting itself in the foot when it comes to public diplomacy. At its home office, the Chinese foreign ministry assembled a cadre of blunt “wolf warriors” to serve as spokesmen for its policies. Here in Manila, Beijing decided to send a tone-deaf undiplomatic diplomat to serve as its ambassador. That was bound to create a provocation.

A few days ago, Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian did entirely as expected. He “advised” the Philippine government to “unequivocally” oppose “Taiwan independence” if our country “cares genuinely” about Filipino workers in Taiwan.

The Chinese embassy has been frantically trying to do damage control, saying their ambassador was taken out of context. They fail to explain why this is so. Failing in that, the entire effort fails.

To begin with, Huang had neither the competence nor the right to dictate what our Taiwan policy should be. The Philippines recognizes that any decision about Taiwan’s future is one only the Taiwanese must make.

The choice facing the Taiwanese people is whether they want to continue their present course as a self-governing entity enjoying a robust democracy or choose to submit to a repressive authoritarian regime. They have every freedom to make that choice and the Philippines will not, as a matter of policy, insert its own view on what is basically a domestic debate. We believe in the freedom of peoples to shape their destinies.

Huang is clearly out of bounds here. He is dictating what our foreign policy should be.

To make matters worse, Huang inserts the future of Filipino workers in Taiwan into the equation, clearly suggesting adverse implications for them if we do not toe Beijing’s diplomatic line. That is clearly threatening talk. This guy is obviously bullying us.

The political fallout following Huang’s crude remarks is justified. One legislator described those remarks as “disgraceful” and asked for the ambassador to be recalled. Beijing should do that if it wants to salvage what is left of our tattered people-to-people relationship.

Huang inflicts disinformation. He tried to compare China-Taiwan relations to our own experience with the Mindanao peace process. That was a totally ignorant comparison to draw.

The Office of the Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity (PAPRU) was compelled to issue a statement to correct Huang’s ignorance.

The PAPRU points out that the Mindanao peace process happened with open and frank dialogue among all the stakeholders. This was “facilitated by a third-party country to ensure fairness and maintain the integrity of the peace negotiations.” As regards the brewing crisis at the Taiwan Strait, PAPRU observes that “we need genuine and inclusive dialogue, respect and good faith by all parties.”

The Chinese ambassador should read this statement closely for his own edification.

Decoupling

Beijing’s blunt and bullying stance towards her neighbors draws from overconfidence in China’s economic prowess and her ability to rapidly modernize her military. She needs to cultivate a more nuanced understanding of her strategic needs.

North America and Europe are leaning towards a strategic decoupling from China’s economy in response to the country’s increasing aggressiveness towards her neighbors. To counter that trend towards decoupling, China needs to expand her economic ties with Southeast Asia, India, Japan, South Korea and, yes, Taiwan to maintain her trading position over the longer term.

This might sound incredible: China is quickly running out of people to man continued economic expansion. Her disastrous one-child policy, maintained for decades, is now revealing its unhealthy repercussions. As her workforce begins to age, China will have to depend on the young populations of neighboring countries to remain economically viable. The demographic trends reflect in pressure to raise wages – and therefore court uncompetitiveness.

As decoupling happens, the economies of East and Southeast Asia will be indispensable markets for Chinese goods and investment areas for Chinese capital. As the West cramps China’s technological development, the superpower will be reliant on technological cooperation with her neighbors. Beijing should be open, friendly and frank with them rather than bullying them at every turn.

The worst that could happen to China over the longer term is to be diplomatically, politically and economically isolated. Being the burgeoning superpower she has become, China can no longer lift herself by her own bootstraps.

Beijing, it seems, is taking too long to fully grasp its strategic needs and the importance of polished public diplomacy. Her ambassador to Manila, who thinks his role is to hector and threaten us, fully personifies that underdevelopment.

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