The China Syndrome
No, not the kind made famous by the 1979 movie of the same title, based on the theory that if a nuclear meltdown takes place, it could potentially melt through all the way down to the other side of the earth.
There’s an altogether different one, mentioned here and there in light of the President’s refusal to make a big deal about the recent misfortune of some fisherfolk in the West Philippine Sea: What, exactly, does China have on the President, to make him so obliging toward Beijing?
Ever since a Gulfstream jet of Beijing Capital Airlines materialized in Davao on April 12, 2016 (departing on April 17), speculation’s been active in that regard. But I hardly think any type of squeeze play has to be involved — though there is something to be said for the speculation that Beijing extends to the President the same kind of medical benefits the late Norodom Sihanouk, former king of Cambodia, availed of for decades (indeed, he would die in a Beijing hospital in 2012).
Back in 2005, in the sidelines of a conference in Washington, a Chinese Filipino from Zamboanga told me that China was very popular in his part of the country, while America was not. The reason, he said, was simple. “When the US ambassador comes to visit, he travels in an armored Humvee and it’s like a foreign invasion,” he explained. “On the other hand, when the Chinese ambassador visits, he travels around without a huge escort and he always makes a point of giving a gift of a motorcycle or two to a local Chinese Filipino group.”
The President has been candid about this difference, too. According to him, when Americans invite you for a meeting, they merely give you a cup of coffee and a donut. But the Chinese! Ah, when they welcome you, they really welcome you: They lay out a lauriat.
Henry Kissinger once pointed out that instead of the more usually used term “Middle Kingdom” to translate China’s view of its role in the world, a more accurate translation would be “Central Country,” to properly describe how China views its civilization and nationhood. Aside from the British, the French and the Americans (among democracies), and the Russians, the Chinese know how to combine official hospitality with carefully calculated gradations of pomp to remind visitors of their place in the pecking order of things. So when President Benigno S. Aquino III went to Beijing on a state visit, he got, for his troubles, the super-budget-econo-version of a state visit, with ceremonies conducted indoors in a function room of the Great Hall of the People.
In contrast, when President Rodrigo R. Duterte went, he got the full package, complete with ceremonies outdoors and a large military contingent. Only the Japanese, with their professional familiarity with Davao dating to the prewar years, and their assiduous study of our society, have been able to match Beijing when it comes to the diplomatic wooing of the President. (However hard they try, the Americans are always playing catchup, not least because Washington is in shambles, but also because the President hasn’t been shy about his antipathy for America; it makes him impervious to the glittering allure of a Washington visit, for example).
Three years into the President’s term, it surprises me no end how people still keep insisting they can make the President do what he doesn’t want to do, or that he will, after having appointed people to office, take their advice on top issues when he has never been shy about being an old dog immune to learning any new tricks. After all, he became top dog because of his old tricks.
The same applies to the hardheaded attitude of observers and some insiders alike, that somehow, the predilection of the President for Beijing would ever substantially change. To be sure, like any other politician, the President can zigzag: It is, politically speaking, the straightest path between two points.
A case in point is the story told about how Beijing and not Tokyo became the first major capital the President decided to visit. In the mad scramble for influence, Tokyo originally won out. Then the then-Secretary of Foreign Affairs (Perfecto Yasay) went on a trip to Washington, and the Chinese ambassador did what is called an end run: He approached the chief presidential legal counsel and got face time with the President, and it was then suddenly announced that Beijing would be the first major destination of the President.
That sort of direct access, which every diplomat anywhere craves, has been enjoyed by China ever since. It means that whatever whoever happens to be secretary of foreign affairs says, the President can easily be convinced to countermand, if necessary. The clincher can be found in PCIJ’s exploration of the President’s business affairs. He has no American or European business associates of any kind.
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