The tragedy of our ‘China first’ policy

/ 04:06 AM February 04, 2020

They say the greatest heartbreaks are born out of initial hope, and that the true character of a man is revealed only when given absolute power. What began as a potentially noble effort to reduce our hackneyed dependence on a superpower ally soon degenerated into a mind-boggling, brazen policy of subservience to an authoritarian superpower ever-creeping into our national waters.

No wonder China has described President Duterte as its “most respected friend.” Ironically, the more Mr. Duterte acquiesces to China, the harder the potential backlash against not only Chinese citizens, but also our Filipino-Chinese countrymen. When people feel that their government is failing them, they tend to take matters into their own hands. As Newton’s basic third law of motion dictates: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.


There is no definitive “Duterte algorithm” at play. Yet, there are patterns of thought and behavior worth analyzing. Mr. Duterte’s most revealing speech was arguably the press conference he gave in Palawan a month before his decisive election.

Many remember that speech for his headline-grabbing “Jetski” comment, when he claimed that he “will ride a jet ski” and “carry a flag” to the Spratlys where he will warn the Chinese “suntukan o barilan (fist fight or gun fight)?”What many overlooked, however, was his shockingly transparent signal of transactional acquiescence to China: “[If you] build me a train around Mindanao, build me train from Manila to Bicol… build me a train going to Batangas, for the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [on the West Philippine Sea disputes].”


A month earlier, in one of a series of interviews with Filipino statesmen and experts conducted by Chinese media, Mr. Duterte made it clear that “What I need from China is help to develop my country.” In exchange, as the Chinese narrator put it, “he says he would not count on the Americans coming to the Philippines’ rescue, and would have even considered dropping an arbitration case the Aquino administration filed against China.”

I watched that interview closely, partly because the news package included interviews with me as well as Sen. Grace Poe, then the other top contender for the presidency.

Almost four years later, China is yet to build any major infrastructure project in the Philippines. For years, I warned that China could take Mr. Duterte for a ride with empty infrastructure promises in exchange for major geopolitical concessions. I called this the “Chinese chimera” phenomenon.

Instead, what we have gotten is the influx of Chinese online casino workers, and more recently, prostitutes, who have upended the socioeconomic landscape in major cities. The Pogos and such types of shady, low-quality investments have created hundreds of thousands of jobs for the Chinese, but not much for Filipinos.

Nonetheless, enough people in power have benefited from these dubious businesses, so much so that Mr. Duterte decided to stand up to China, for the very first time, when President Xi Jinping, who has banned gambling at home, pushed for their closure.

Unable to boast of any big-ticket Chinese infrastructure investments, Mr. Duterte has instead resorted to the bogus claim that if we resist China in the West Philippine Sea, there will be war. Never mind that none of our neighbors who have directly challenged China faced even the threat of war in the past three decades. Nor did the Benigno Aquino III administration, which had the audacity to take China to an international arbitral tribunal.

The hollow nature of Mr. Duterte’s “independent” foreign policy has been on full display in recent months. When a suspected Chinese militia boat rammed a Filipino fishing boat within our exclusive economic zone last year, the President chose a combination of prolonged silence and perplexing meekness to downplay the situation as “a little maritime incident.” It exactly mimicked the Chinese talking points, which dismissed it as an “ordinary maritime accident.”


Even more shockingly, when neighbors and major countries began shuttering their borders to China amid the new coronavirus epidemic, the Duterte administration worried about the “political and diplomatic repercussions” of any serious countermeasure against inbound travel from China. As Beijing began to lock down Wuhan and surrounding areas following a weeks-long cover up, the administration still welcomed more than 100 Chinese from the area.

Time and again, the President has seemingly prioritized diplomacy with China over the protection of his own people. What we desperately need today is an end to this “China first” diplomacy in favor of a more balanced, self-respecting and truly mutually beneficial relationship with Beijing.

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TAGS: Horizons, PH-China relations, Richard Heydarian, Rodrigo Duterte
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