Duterte’s Chinese chimera
“More than anybody else at this time of our national life, I need China. I will not say something which is not true,” President Duterte said on Monday, ahead of his third visit to China since taking office.
Mr. Duterte rarely misses the chance to express his “love” for Chinese President Xi Jinping, or promote instances when China offered assistance, no matter how limited relative to its resources or the magnitude of the crisis at hand, to the Philippines.
Last year, when US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Manila, Mr. Duterte was quick to highlight the (small-scale) military assistance from China during the Marawi crisis, although it was traditional allies America and Australia that provided the cutting-edge intelligence, training and equipment that helped end the terrorist siege of the country’s largest Muslim-majority city.
Nor does the President miss the chance to play down or ignore China’s rapidly growing military footprint in the Kalayaan Group of Islands; its large-scale reclamation activities on Philippine-claimed land features in the South China Sea; continued jurisdictional control of Panatag Shoal (international name: Scarborough Shoal) at the expense of Filipino fishermen; and blatant defiance of the 2016 arbitral court ruling at The Hague, which is, under international law, “final” and “binding.”
More recently, the government has been busy dismissing concerns over China’s suspicious activities in Philippine Rise (formerly known as Benham Rise), including its unilateral naming of seabed features within our waters. During his chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) last year, Mr. Duterte used his position to tell the international community to keep out of the South China Sea disputes, much to the delight of China.
Promise of investments
Mr. Duterte has even discussed “co-ownership” with China of disputed resources in the West Philippine Sea. At the heart of his justification for his strategic acquiescence is Beijing’s promise of large-scale investments in the Philippines.
In his worldview, China is the answer to the Philippines’ national development needs. But facts on the ground show a more sobering picture.
In the first year of Mr. Duterte’s presidency, Japan (P31.48 billion) out-invested China (P1.61 billion) by a factor of 23. The United States, which has been at the receiving end of Mr. Duterte’s nonstop invectives, invested five times more than China (P8.36 billion).
Last year, according to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the bulk of foreign direct investments (FDIs) came from Japan, the United States and Europe.
In fact, so far, it’s Japan and private conglomerates, not mainland Chinese companies, that have led big-ticket infrastructure projects under the “Build, Build, Build” program.
An authoritative study by Rand Corp. that analyzed Beijing’s pledges of investments around the world in recent decades shows a huge gap between Chinese pledges of investments, on one hand, and the actual amount delivered, on the other.
In many cases, including in friendly authoritarian countries, China’s actual pledge was up to five times larger than what it actually delivered.
And China is in no rush to actually invest in the Philippines, since it’s getting all the concessions it seeks with minimum effort. Mayor-turned-President Duterte is dealing with an astute power that is guided by thousands of years of strategic wisdom.
More than two millenniums ago, the legendary Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu advised every wise king that the supreme art of war was “to subdue the enemy without fighting.”
Both at the height of its power as well as in its darkest days, China largely pursued its strategic interests with minimum reliance on force, but maximum reliance on charm and cunning.
At the heart of this “charm offensive” strategic doctrine is Liu Ching, an imperial adviser during the Han dynasty who argued that the best way for China to dominate peripheral states was through “induced economic dependence.”
In many ways, the works of Sun Tzu and Liu Ching served as the foundation of China’s manifold economic initiatives in its neighborhood, including the Maritime Silk Road Initiative, as well as offerings of billions of dollars to smaller neighbors like the Philippines.
As Henry Kissinger, who has met Chinese leaders throughout the decades, explains: “In no other country is it conceivable that a modern leader would initiate a major national undertaking by invoking strategic principles [from ancient thinkers].”
Even if China were to commit large-scale investments, there would still be concerns over whether its state-backed companies could clear our domestic laws on competitive bidding, environmental sustainability, and good government.
There is also the broader concern over Chinese companies insisting on employing not only their own engineers and managers but also workers for overseas projects.
The real concern, as some analysts prematurely argue, isn’t the “debt trap” by China, as we have seen in smaller economies like Sri Lanka and Laos. Instead, it’s a “Chinese chimera,” where Beijing extracts major geopolitical concessions from Mr. Duterte based on (false) promises of large-scale investments that never come true.
Modern China might as well come up with a new strategic dictum: Lure your enemy by offering heaven on earth.
(Editor’s Note: Richard Heydarian is a geopolitical specialist and author of, among other books, “Asia’s New Battlefiled: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zedbooks, London) and “Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy” (Palgrave Macmillan, London). He can be reached at @Richeydarian on Twitter and Facebook.)
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