Philippines-China relations

[ANALYSIS] Cagayan vs Balikatan: The impact of foreign influence on domestic politics

Rommel Jude G. Ong
[ANALYSIS] Cagayan vs Balikatan: The impact of foreign influence on domestic politics
'It is hoped that patriotism will prevail above all other considerations when the electorate casts it ballot a few months from now'

“I’m really pro-China. What will I do with America? This is the one that will invest in us. They’re the ones interested in us.”

This was Cagayan Governor Manuel Mamba’s statement, cited in an Inquirer report, articulating his opposition to the conduct of a live-fire event in his province during the upcoming PH-US Balikatan Exercise this April 2022. He was supported by various provincial-level councils under his purview, including the local component of the NTF-ELCAC. 

Governor Mamba predicated his position against the exercise on the following points: that it would create a diplomatic issue with China; draw in his province in the Taiwan Straits conflict; and put to risk potential Chinese investments. Among the menu of investments he mentioned, noteworthy were the offer to finance construction of an international airport and a P10-billion port rehabilitation project for Aparri, along with the construction of an international port terminal worth $200 million. 

Mamba’s stance on the PH-US alliance provides a stark picture of how the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) employment of influence operations could affect a bureaucracy, undermine its political system, and manipulate local policies that has strategic significance. In the book entitled Political Warfare: Strategies for Combating China’s Plan to Win Without Fighting, the author Kerry Gershaneck describes influence operations as “actions designed to influence foreign government leaders, businesses and industries, academia, media outlets, and other key elites in a manner that benefits China, [which] are often, but not always, conducted at the expense of the self-interests of the countries at which the actions are directed.”

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Gershaneck has identified the various CCP organs employed against foreign democracies to adopt pro-China domestic policies. Primarily, there is the United Front Work Department, and it acts in collaboration with the International Liaison Department, the Central Propaganda Department, the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, and possibly even China’s state-owned enterprises whose corporate leaders are mostly CCP members. Xi Jinping has been a strong advocate in the use of United Front Work as a tool of statecraft since he assumed power in 2012, and in in his view it should ably support the CCP’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). 

Hopefully, Governor Mamba’s romance with Chinese investments will not end up like the 99-year lease over the port of Darwin in Australia. According to the international media, a Chinese company with links to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – the Landbridge Group – leased the port for A$506 million or $390 million. At that time, Darwin’s political leaders were unmindful that their actions provided the CCP a jump-off point to actualize its maritime ambition in the Indian Ocean. Simply put, Beijing’s BRI complements its global maritime strategy by providing the PLA with ports that can provide logistics support for its navy’s “far seas operations.” Similarly, the Philippine Navy has previously warned against BRI-related investments at Fuga Island in Cagayan Province; Grande and Chiquita Islands at Subic Bay; and the first Sangley international airport project in Cavite Province. All these proposals could’ve placed the country at a strategic disadvantage if it were allowed to prosper.

At this point, the national security community should equally prioritize the protection of our maritime interests in the northern front, aside from the West Philippine Sea or the southern backdoor. Its geopolitical circumstance is just as complex: a major nautical highway shaped by southern Taiwan along with the Batanes Group of Islands and the Cagayan Province. In naval strategy it is considered as a “decisive point” or a “key terrain feature.” Here, sea control is necessary in order to shape and influence the maritime space covering Japan, Taiwan, and the Philippines in the near seas, and radiating outward to the entire South China Sea and the mid-Pacific Ocean. It is for these reasons that the CCP covets any opportunity to extend influence over the Luzon Strait and Bashi Channel. 

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Offhand, Governor Mamba’s claim of economic benefits reaped from Chinese investments requires an accounting in terms of actual impact to the province’s economy and its populace, and perhaps its unintended consequences over the environment and communities. But more so, in the policy ecosystem, an oversight mechanism by the security sector over the economic and cultural engagements of local government units (LGUs) with foreign countries is badly needed. Further, elected local officials need to be educated on matters of national security as well, so that they will not inadvertently compromise national security by mistake. 

Perhaps, the best way to inoculate our domestic politics against foreign interference is by electing leaders who would put the interest of Filipinos first. Given that, in the recent surveys, more than 80% of Filipinos affirm the importance of defending our country’s sovereignty and sovereign rights, it is hoped that patriotism will prevail above all other considerations when the electorate casts it ballot a few months from now. After six years, it’s time for Filipinos to reclaim their country. – Rappler.com

Rear Admiral Rommel Jude Ong (Ret.) is currently Professor of Praxis at Ateneo School of Government. He was formerly the Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy.