Experts warn of China-backed candidates in 2022 PH elections

JC Gotinga
Experts warn of China-backed candidates in 2022 PH elections
There may be several 'Manchurian candidates' in the presidential race in 2022 as China tries to tighten its grip on the Philippines, say military and diplomatic experts

MANILA, Philippines – Experts in military strategy and international diplomacy urge Filipinos to gear up against China’s influence in the next national elections in May 2022.

As China hedges its interests in the Western Pacific, it will use a combination of “hard” and “sharp power” to intimidate and co-opt countries standing in the way of its plan to dominate the region, said former Navy vice commander Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong in a virtual forum on Tuesday, June 9.

“Hard power” is China’s military muscle-flexing in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, which includes the portion Filipinos call the West Philippine Sea.

“Sharp power” is China’s combined use of diplomacy, propaganda, and economic leverage to manipulate the policies, and influence or undermine the political system of another country.

The Philippines is already getting a taste of both, Ong said. Chinese warships, coast guard vessels, and militia boats criss-cross the West Philippine Sea and even internal waters undeterred and unmatched by the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard – a clear example of hard power.

China’s sharp power is at play as it donates boatloads of medical equipment and supplies for the government’s pandemic response, penetrates state media and educational institutions, and infiltrates the economy through businesses and acquired real estate.

With these, the one thing left in China’s “unrestricted warfare” to get the Philippines to bend to its will is to put the leaders it wants in power.

“If we want to counter China’s sharp power, then we should prepare for the national elections in 2022. If we deny our share of the responsibility as citizens in preserving our way of life, then we might face an electoral contest not among political parties but against China’s preferred candidates,” said Ong, now Professor of Praxis at the Ateneo School of Government.

This would be the “ultimate weapon in China’s toolkit” he added, noting that Beijing already tried using this tactic in elections in Taiwan, South Korea, and Australia.

China aims to keep surrounding countries friendly or otherwise destabilize them and keep them weak to ensure they won’t form alliances to counter its interests, Ong said in the forum hosted by the Stratbase ADR Institute.

‘More than two Manchurian candidates’

China will want a friendly president in Malacañang and to do this, it may attempt to back several candidates to ascertain its prospects.

“Some of us believe that there will be more than two Manchurian candidates. So whoever they will field, we have to unite under one candidate,” said Ambassador Laura del Rosario, former Undersecretary for International Economic Affairs at the Department of Foreign Affairs.

A Manchurian candidate is one who acts in the interests of a country or political party other than their own.

To ward off a victory by a candidate fielded by China, Del Rosario said Filipinos should support a single candidate strong enough to beat the others.

“The problem is, even our businessmen bet on everybody…just to make sure they’re safe,” she added.

China’s contempt for weak states

The problem with the current administration’s subservient attitude is it provokes China to further pounce on the Philippines.

“China has a contemptuous attitude towards weak nations, so we have to stand up,” said Del Rosario, who is currently president of Miriam College.

Defiance from relatively smaller states like Malaysia and Vietnam in a way earns China’s respect even if it initially retorts with bluster, she added.

“During the Aquino time I think they hated us, but in a way, I think they respected us for our strength of character and what we believed in,” Del Rosario said.

The administration of Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III took a resolute stance against China’s claims in the West Philippine Sea. It filed and won an international arbitration case against Beijing, which all but severed diplomatic ties with Manila at the time.

‘Brazenly pro-China’

Despite President Rodrigo Duterte’s decidedly preferential policies toward China, its blockade of areas like Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and the harassment of Filipino fishermen have nevertheless continued.

“The Duterte administration shows acquiescence does not bear fruit,” said Richard Heydarian, a nonresident fellow at Stratbase ADR Institute.

Renato de Castro, a trustee and program convenor at the institute, said Filipinos should make sure the 2022 national elections will be clean, so no “Manchurian candidate” would be able to cut in.

For Heydarian, robust defiance from an informed, patriotic public can keep the president in check, even if it’s the Manchurian candidate. If even “brazenly pro-China” Duterte has had to packpedal once in a while, as he did when he halted the repeal of a military pact with the US, then a vigilant public can do a lot to fend off an intrusive neighbor like China. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.