Up for grabs | Inquirer Opinion
The Long View

Up for grabs

Between President Marcos at the White House being part of a tripartite summit signaling America’s anointing of Japan as its regional champion, and him at Malacañang witnessing Japan and the Philippines formalizing an agreement essentially on par with the country’s existing status of forces agreements with the United States and Australia, something happened. Japan’s currency hit its lowest point in nearly 40 years and because of this, the Japanese plan to ramp up military spending has lost steam: a former defense minister told The New York Times in real terms, the sinking Japanese yen means defense spending has been cut 30 percent.

This doesn’t mean Tokyo won’t work on firming up its ties with Manila, but it does suggest that just as Manila has more deeply engaged the West and regional powers concerned over China, many of these powers are simultaneously facing domestic pressures that could limit the resources they can allocate to their militaries and diplomacy. Two interesting cases in point are France, where the Right may have been kept out of power but with neither the New United Front of the Left nor the centrist alliance of President Emmanuel Macron being able to form a government; and Britain, with its new Labor government, also has to do more domestically within the confines of less fiscal space and even demographic challenges: two expensively refurbished Royal Navy frigates, for example, are reportedly due for premature retirement as there simply aren’t enough sailors to run them—hobbling the country’s ability to contribute to maintaining the openness of the seas.

Beijing is, of course, upset over the Manila-Tokyo agreement and while the Beijing boosters use their online space to insist that Mr. Marcos has been blackmailed into cooperating with America, the effectiveness of Manila’s holding a steady course can be seen in Manila and Beijing going through the motions of negotiating a way to avoid more mishaps along the lines of the brutal treatment of Filipinos by the Chinese on the high seas a few weeks ago. To save face, Beijing also sent the world’s largest coast guard vessel to symbolically intrude into Philippine waters (in the parliament of the seas, it’s akin to the old martial law Metrocom parading an armored personnel carrier at the site of a concluded opposition rally). What Manila, Tokyo, Washington, Canberra, and Beijing all know is that what was signed in the presence of Mr. Marcos the other day is a deal that still needs to be sealed, and the sealing can only be done by the Senate. The Constitution says two-thirds or 16 senators have to ratify the agreement. It will take time—and timing—for the administration to submit the agreement for ratification and for the Senate to debate and vote on it. Here, the 2025 midterm elections could potentially affect the fate of the agreement, with half of the upper chamber’s membership up for election and a large chunk of those currently in the Senate, ineligible to run for reelection.

It is better for Beijing and Manila to be talking about reducing tensions in our regional waters rather than for matters to remain heated because the heat only serves to make Filipino public opinion more hard-boiled when it comes to Beijing: Pulse Asia’s recent snapshot shows most Filipinos want a diplomatic solution but you don’t need surveys to tell you that most Filipinos do not like China’s behavior in the seas. The power imbalance has never been—and won’t likely ever be—a deterrent to stubbornly applauding our coast guard and military’s performative martyrdom at sea and our government doing the same in its diplomacy.

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Since the midterms are turning into a double referendum—the traditional one, every midterm is, on the sitting administration, and a nontraditional one born of political necessity to prove the Dutertes are still viable not just as a dynasty but movement or at least competitive bloc—and since there seems every sign the midterms will revolve around the usual basic issue of jobs and the economy, the Dutertes are in a bind. The economy and jobs are not at the core, by any means, of the Duterte political brand: the closest they can come to it is to dangle the possibility of enthusiastic Chinese investments if the electorate repudiates the Marcoses come 2025. But for the public, China is (unfairly and inaccurately) viewed as being about both bullying on the high seas and slush funds, slavery, fraud, violence, and other crimes, on the part of Philippine offshore gaming operators, which the Dutertes can be accused of either having cynically coddled in defiance of Beijing, or failed to control, despite Beijing’s demands for a crackdown—in either case, contravening the Duterte identity of an iron grip on things.

Rather than add fuel to the fire, it makes sense for Beijing to lower the political temperature by playing nice—for now.

Email: [email protected]; Twitter: @mlq3

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TAGS: Manuel L. Quezon III, opinion

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