[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Geopolitics, Duterte-style

China is – and will be – his savior, said President Rodrigo Duterte. “We will not allow you to be taken from your office,” Duterte quoted Chinese president Xi Jinping as supposedly telling him. “We will not allow the Philippines to go to the dogs.”

The Philippine leader is taking Xi’s word for it. Besides, he said, since we can’t defeat the Chinese in any battle in our own territory, anyway, we might as well stay in bed with them.

Duterte calls this geopolitics. We call it amateur hour.

We have reasons to doubt that Xi even said that or meant it.

China and its leader for life know Southeast Asian politics perhaps more than we in the region know ourselves. And rightly so: they claim and covet our territories. 

For Duterte to brandish China as his weapon against his hated America is to assume that China does not know how well-entrenched US interests are in the Philippines.

Surely he's aware that China is constantly annoyed by the continuing joint military exercises between Filipino and American troops, the latest one happening only recently with 3,000 US soldiers participating?

For Duterte to hint that China has ultimate faith in him is to assume that China did not raise eyebrows when he approved the removal of the comfort woman statue in Manila, to accommodate China's regional rival, Japan.

It is to assume that China completely trusts his skills and durability as a leader.

Nothing could be farther from reality. 

China is what it is now because it does not only think strategically, it is also aware of the brittleness of political power in a region that pulls surprises every now and then.

It got a crude reminder of this last week, with the stunning defeat of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, a leader whom China has wined and dined and nurtured through billions worth of promised loans and a commitment to make Malaysia one of the top beneficiaries of China’s Belt and Road Initiative – with all the caveat of Chinese impositions. The comebacking Mohammad Mahathir promised  to review all that, and tell China what it used to know – that Malaysia is no push-over in deals like this.

This is not to say that Duterte will go the way of Najib, but only to stress the folly of believing in a leader’s infallibility. China, of all countries, knows there is only one infallible leader, and that is its own.

What is more troubling with Duterte’s empty boast is it unmasks his provincial view of regional security and his malnourished understanding of sovereignty. 

China has constructed 3 air and naval bases in the Spratlys, which are said to host sophisticated missile systems. It has shown no signs of stopping its buildup in territories owned and claimed by East Asian countries, including the Philippines.

Yet, its military actions do not agitate Duterte. They, in fact, seem to scare him.

Which can only be the possible explanation for his refusal to assert not only what is ours but what an international court has ruled to be ours. (READ: PH wins case vs China)

This is a leader who equates claiming sovereignty with going to battle, saying in a speech: “So we are now negotiating…it’s better than we go to war … my soldiers will all be killed. Launch cruise missile – my soldiers will  die. I will not do that. So with regards to the West Philippine Sea, I’ll just get what we can get.”

He should know that he will get more than he bargained for. 

On May 18, the People’s Liberation Army Air Force announced it had landed bombers on an outpost in the South China Sea. A publication of the Center for Strategic and Security Studies said “nearly all of the Philippines falls within the radius” of the bombers, including Manila and all the 5 Philippine military bases that the US government is going to develop under a defense agreement with Manila.

At our expense, China performs on the global stage, seeking to lead what analysts have described as the new illiberal order, where its own brand of autocracy holds sway and where America loses face every day.

Duterte stands as the proud cohort of this new governance model, which abhors checks and balances and wants to give birth to a post-America landscape from the ashes of democracy.

He wants us to believe that China – which does not even have a security deal with the Philippines and has no place in the hearts of Filipino soldiers – will intervene to keep him in power, if it ever came to that.

Duterte wants us to believe that China, which promises to provide us hefty loans with hefty interest, will flex its soft power to “build, build, build” and prop up our economy out of its loyalty to him.

Ahh, if only the world, and China, were as unsophisticated as that. – Rappler.com