Are we a ‘province of China’?
I will be chartering [sic] a [new] course [for the Philippines] on its own and will not be dependent on the United States,” President Duterte declared shortly after his decisive electoral victory in 2016.
His impassioned announcement sent shock waves across the world. Many began to wonder whether the Philippines would end its perceived status as, in President William McKinley’s patronizing prose, America’s “little brown brother.”
It was the most strident expression of long-simmering dismay and genuine frustration by a Filipino leader against a century-old history of strategic subservience. After all, since the founding of the Philippine Republic, the imperial Manila elite had effectively outsourced our external security obligations to a foreign power, the very nation that betrayed our valiant revolution against the Spanish Empire.
For the former provincial mayor, who was never among or welcomed by the imperial Manila elite, it was time to be a truly “independent” republic.
Only months later, however, we witnessed the intimations of a “China First” policy, namely placing Beijing at the center of our strategic engagements.
This was literally the case when Mr. Duterte decided to ditch Japan, originally his first scheduled major overseas state visit, in favor of China. In fact, Mr. Duterte will soon visit China for the fourth time in only three years, while still snubbing our only treaty ally, the United States.
Things took a surreal turn when, during his 2016 visit to Beijing, Mr. Duterte not only announced his “separation from the United States,” but also his decision to “realign myself in your [Chinese] ideological flow” and join an axis of nations where it’s the “three of us against the world—China, [the] Philippines and Russia.”
All of a sudden, an earlier commendable declaration of independence (from America) mutated into what looked like a shift in strategic patronage.
Contrast this to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s statement in Beijing two years after, when he openly warned about “a situation where there’s a new version of colonialism” amid the rise of China as a major trade and investment partner in Asia. In a truly “independent” fashion, the Malaysian maverick, known for his anti-Western stance, was now also reprimanding Beijing.
But things got even stranger when Mr. Duterte began arguing in favor of acquiescence rather than resistance against Chinese incursions in the West Philippine Sea. In response to reports of Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen in our own waters, the President simply said: “We cannot stop China from doing this thing… [W]hat do you want? Declare war against China? I can, but we’ll all lose our military and policemen tomorrow.”
And just a year after, he went one step further by openly quipping, with no less than Chinese diplomats in the audience:
“If you want, just make us a province [of China], like Fujian.”
He followed that up months later by calling on smaller nations to be “meek and humble” in exchange for Chinese “mercy.”
From the tender age of 7, comparative politics and international relations have been my lifelong obsession. Up to this date, however, I know of no contemporary (or even ancient) leader in any nation under any circumstances to have so unabashedly extolled strategic fatalism before great power aggression.
Words matter, especially from a head of state. This is not provincial politics anymore, but high-stakes diplomacy where there is zero room for error. Can you imagine strong leaders such as Mahathir making such statements?
In a time when much of the region, including Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam, have stepped up their resistance to Chinese assertiveness, we seem to be swimming in the opposite direction.
Nowadays, it is astonishingly ubiquitous for some of our senior officials to happily rationalize China’s actions against our
own interests; shamelessly denigrate Filipino workers to justify the influx of hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers; and eagerly downplay any risks associated with Chinese investments in our critical infrastructure.
Technically, a Chinese province we are not; but are we instead embracing a neo-tributary system where Beijing is at the center of a universe filled with kowtowing satellite states? I’m sure a patriot like Heneral Luna would have had a lot of colorful words to spit out about our current predicament.
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