Larger than life
One could have mistaken this for a rock concert. Filipino workers in Brunei trooped to the city’s stadium early enough to listen to their President. The scene was joyful and morale was high.
President Duterte did not disappoint his fans. He launched into yet another masterful yet impromptu performance, cracking folksy jokes and mustering support for his programs. The crowd laughed heartily and applauded lustily. The love for this man was genuine.
No other previous president was as warmly received by overseas Filipinos as President Duterte. We saw that earlier in Vientiane. Then we saw it again in Brunei. The man has an uncanny ability to ignite his countrymen, to reinvigorate their hopes in their country’s prospects and to believe that change has indeed come.
He has been described as a “nontraditional” leader. That puts it lightly and most politely. In the few months he has been in power, Mr. Duterte has grabbed the limelight with his controversial remarks and his willingness to take risks.
Among the Southeast Asian countries, where quiet diplomacy and piecemeal changes are the norms, Mr. Duterte stands out as a forthright and even brash leader. He talks off the cuff and makes policy on the run. He confronts the sacred cows with a devil-may-care attitude. Without trying very hard, he cuts a larger-than-life figure that impresses his peers in the region.
What impresses most is his profound patriotism. Everything he does and everything he says are animated by a sincere desire to do his people good. He comes across as an avenging angel and a humble servant rolled into one.
He has taken his act to the road. First Brunei, then China, and then Japan. At each stop he is closely scrutinized by the local and international media. When he rises to speak, no one is sure what he will say next. There is an unmistakable element of suspense and an air of anticipation in the audience. There is never a dull moment in every engagement.
The international media are closely on his heels as he swings from productive meetings with the Sultan of Brunei to the dramatic summit with China’s leader. He built up global interest in his Beijing meetings with anti-Western tirades in the past few weeks. There is now keen interest in what his “pivot to China” really means.
From the President’s point of view, however, the visit to Beijing is driven principally by economic concerns. It is less about geopolitics and more about trade. He wants to reduce the “informal trade” (read: smuggling) going on between our two economies. He wants a larger share of Chinese investment outflows. He wants the Philippines to benefit from the rich Chinese tourism market. He wants better cooperation in building direly needed infrastructure to help fuel the Philippines’ growth momentum.
President Duterte’s to-do list in Beijing includes winning the cooperation of Chinese law enforcement in breaking the sources of illegal drugs to stop the scourge that bedevils our society. On the side, he hopes to win Beijing’s consent for our fishermen to fish around Scarborough Shoal. Our fishermen were shut out from the rich fishing grounds they fished for generations after the cooling of our bilateral relations during the previous administration.
Access to Scarborough will be a glistening trophy Mr. Duterte hopes to bring home. It will be a practical gain from renewing ties with the superpower next door.
We hope to deliver the message more clearly to the rest of the world: The reinvigoration of our bilateral relations with China has nothing to do with geopolitics. It has everything to do with securing a stable and prosperous future for all Filipinos.
There is much work to do. On our part, we need to prepare our economy to be receptive to investment inflows. We need to bring down power costs, assure peace and order and improve on the ease of doing business.
China, for its part, knows it must try better to bring down the level of distrust Filipinos nurse about the motives of the superpower. That will require much public diplomacy underscored by real economic results.
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