[EDITORIAL] #AnimatED: Duterte, Xi beyond the hype

Like Philippine ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana, we have no illusions that we can solve our long-running issues with the Asian giant overnight. That’s why we also had no illusions about President Rodrigo Duterte’s trip to Beijing last week – despite the hype and the Sal Panelo hot air that preceded it.

In his 8th meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping and 3 years after burying the matter, President Rodrigo Duterte finally raised Manila’s legal victory over Beijing at the Hague, which invalidated China’s sovereign claim over most of the South China Sea. In this story, we recalled that Duterte in fact casually “reminded” Xi of the Hague verdict in a huddle last April. And in previous meetings, both leaders did reach informal agreements on how to deal with West Philippine Sea irritants, such as a modus vivendi on Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal), Pag-asa Island (Thitu Island), and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

But it is one thing to talk about this, it is another to walk it.

For the Philippine government to build a narrative of an upset Duterte raring to wag his finger at Xi in his 5th visit to China – the most by any Philippine leader, or any other leader for that matter – smacks of theatrical play. For China to be now taking a “bigger step” to finalize deals on the joint oil and gas exploration of certain parts in the West Philippine Sea proves our neighbor’s agility in the face of a globally battered image.

Zhang Mingliang, an expert on Southeast Asia at Jinan University in Guangzhou, told the South China Morning Post: “The announcement of the joint exploration was portrayed as a major outcome of the visit, but it was really just a way to gloss over the differences.”  

After all, the context of the Duterte-Xi meeting on August 29 cannot be discounted. A day after, Hong Kong arrested democracy activist Joshua Wong, as the Chinese government struggles to deal with the most stubborn and sophisticated protest movement that Asia has seen in decades.

As if to show it’s not intimidated by the bad press it’s been getting out of Hong Kong, China expelled a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Beijing who has written unfavorably about Xi’s cousin. 

At home, Duterte has had to manage China-induced anxieties within the two sectors closest to his heart: business and the military.

China recently asked the Philippines to ban online gambling operations even as it praised Manila’s decision to suspend all applications for Philippine offshore gaming operations, or POGOs. The reality is that Philippine businesses have been raking it in as a result of the burgeoning presence of POGOs here, and they were hoping the President would use his friendship with Beijing to ask it to go slow in its demand. It’s also common knowledge in the industry that POGO financiers donated millions to the campaign coffers of Philippine senatorial candidates last May, most of whom have been elected.

The Philippine military, too, has been raising a ruckus over the frequent incursions of Chinese warships into Philippine seas, complaining that they purposely turn off their detection radar when crossing our territory. We have listed at least 12 incursions this year alone.

In truth, China will never recognize the Philippines’ victory at the Hague (Xi reminded Duterte of that again last week) and will unlikely allow Duterte to push this forward through various channels such as the United Nations. And in truth, Duterte and his cronies are too much in bed with China and too tactical in their goals in their relationship, for them to consider – as Philippine Ambassador to Beijing Chito Sta Romana hopes – bringing the issue “to the floor of a diplomatic agenda.” 

Duterte’s pivot to China has done nothing big for his country and Filipinos, has done little beyond Build, Build, Build pledges and recycled paper agreements, and has done much damage to the hearts of fishermen and soldiers who guard our seas and build their families' future around them. 

Duterte’s pivot to China made him – and the country – lose the opportunity afforded by the Hague ruling to exercise leadership in a region constantly harassed at sea by interlopers. For if there’s anything that the last 3 years have shown, and especially in 2019, it is how China has been relentless in coveting the South China Sea, abandoning Filipino fishermen in the middle of the sea, and angering Philippine neighbors such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and Malaysia.

Just before the Duterte-Xi talks, Malaysia and Vietnam issued a joint statement about their “serious concern” over a Chinese ship’s recent visit to an area very close to Vietnam’s coastline and a Chinese coast guard’s presence around an oil rig in Malaysia’s continental shelf.

Aside from the US, even Europe’s big 3 – Germany, France, and the UK – have raised concern over renewed tensions in the region due to China's aggressive behavior.

As he enters the last phase of his term, can Duterte afford to appear and sound like a wimp alongside his fellow Southeast Asian leaders? And for what? For China’s empty promises and stubborn intrusions into our territories? 

The current situation demands of him to wave the Philippine flag each time it is torn apart at sea or land, and not when he simply needs another justification to visit his favorite country, dine with his favorite friends, cut deals with them behind the scenes, and get a much-needed health boost in between. – Rappler.com