[ANALYSIS] Beneath the glitter of the Xi-Duterte bromance

Perhaps the most striking measure of his primacy was getting the CCP Congress earlier this year to scrap the constitutionally prescribed two-term limit on the tenure of president.  

In the international arena, he has skillfully positioned himself to fill the global leadership role that US President Donald Trump, with his erratic behavior, seems intent to withdraw from. Moreover, he has not hesitated to use the resources of the still rapidly growing Chinese economy to win allies and influence governments. His “Belt and Road Initiative” of transcontinental infrastructure building deliberately evokes the image of the ancient “silk roads” linking imperial China to early modern Europe when the Middle Kingdom was numero uno.

Xi will be meeting with a head of state who is also at the apex of his political career. (READ: Shades of Duterte in China's Xi Jinping)

Undoubtedly the most powerful Philippine president since Ferdinand Marcos, Rodrigo Duterte has, over the last two and a half years, removed the chief justice of the Supreme Court, achieved undisputed control of both the Senate and House of Representatives, imprisoned his chief political opponent in the Senate, forced most of the media into self-censorship mode, gained the support of most of the rank and file of the military and the acquiescence of the high command, and put a third of the country under martial law.  

His consolidation of power has elicited little outcry from the public. Indeed, his popularity ratings remain quite high, inspite of – or perhaps because of – a bloody anti-drug campaign that critics say has resulted in the extrajudicial execution of thousands of alleged drug users and pushers.

There is, no doubt, chemistry between the two leaders. 

The uninhibited Duterte has not hesitated to proclaim in public that “I love Xie Jing Ping.” Xi is more reserved, projecting  an attitude of benevolent  tolerance towards Duterte, much like that of an older brother towards a rowdy sibling (though he is eight years younger than his counterpart).  Xi sees Duterte as a godsend that materialized at a time of escalating crisis in the South China Sea, a gift China did not expect or work for. He is grateful to the Philippine leader, though he is careful to separate his personal attitude towards Duterte from Beijing’s unswerving strategic goals in the disputed area. 

And beyond the personal rapport,  there is that deeper bond between both leaders:  a belief in authoritarian leadership, to which they attribute China’s rise to economic and political prominence.

No bromance below

Duterte’s red carpet welcome will not be matched by one from his people. 

Beijing’s incursions into the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea and its continuing base-building on maritime formations belonging to the country has given China the image of a bully and provoked widespread resentment. These moves have unfortunately inflamed the already strongly held prejudices about the Chinese among many Filipinos. 

They are not likely be mollified by Premier Li Keqiang’s recent offering of an olive branch to Southeast Asia’s leaders at the recent ASEAN Summit in Singapore: the promise to begin and conclude negotiations within 3 years of a much-delayed code of maritime conduct (COC) in the South China Sea.  Filipinos – and ASEAN – are right to be skeptical since China has promised to move on the COC negotiations several times during the last sixteen years but never delivered.  

The latest promise is likely to be largely a PR effort to elicit popular goodwill for the presidential visit.

The South China Sea dispute is not the only issue bugging Filipinos about their giant neighbor. 

To push through its ambitious Build-Build-Build Program, the Duterte government has contracted about 368 billion pesos ($7.2 billion) worth of loans from China at what experts say is a rather high interest rate of 2-3 percent.  Partly to fund the effort, the government pushed through Congress the so-called TRAIN law, the main component of which was raising consumption taxes on petroleum products by six pesos over three years. 

Since oil is a significant energy input into almost all industries in the country’s-oil intensive economy, TRAIN became a signal to other sectors to raise their prices in anticipation of oil price rises, resulting in a runaway inflation that hit an amazing nine-year high of 6.7 per cent in September, which some say may presage an Argentina-type price spiral that would be extraordinarily difficult to rein in. 

Not surprisingly, inflation has become associated in the public mind with the Chinese loans.

Beijing’s concerns

Popular perceptions are of concern to Xi since he wants to make sure that the new Manila-Beijing relationship will be lasting. 

His concern has been exacerbated by speculation about Duterte’s health, which could only be fueled by the president’s missing key meetings at the recent ASEAN summit in Singapore, which left the Philippine leader’s subordinates scrambling to explain.  The question of who will succeed Duterte and whether that person will be as congenial to Chinese interests is clearly one that Beijing does not take lightly.   

The Chinese are probably painfully aware that institutional support for Duterte’s turn to Beijing is fragile. 

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) high command remains a bastion of support for the US military owing to longstanding ideological, political, and military assistance ties. (READ: Enemy at sea, friend of the chief: Philippine military navigates ties with China)

The professional diplomats at the Department of Foreign Affairs are still smarting from Duterte’s abandonment of the Hague legal victory on the South China Sea that many of them had worked on, and from their having to suffer the embarrassingly amateurish antics of political appointees like former foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano.  

Their simmering resentment is unlikely to disappear under the latest political appointee, Teddyboy Locsin, a former media man known not for diplomatese but for pyrotechnics. To the foreign affairs pros on Roxas Boulevard, amateurs like Cayetano and Locsin are dead meat for Beijing’s disciplined and utterly single-minded diplomatic service.

With the military and DFA being inhospitable territory, the de facto liaison with China has become the Department of Finance under Duterte crony Finance Secretary Sonny Dominguez. Not surprisingly, the Philippines’ foreign policy toward China has become driven less by strategic concerns and more and more by dollars and cents, or, more appropriately, by renminbi and yuan. 

From its experience during the corrupt presidency of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Beijing knows that the benefits from yuan diplomacy are not lasting, and that what is decisive is gaining the assent of the institutions that determine the Philippines’ strategic foreign and military policies.

Missed opportunity 

The Duterte administration had a chance to stake out a truly independent approach in its first months. 

As we proposed in an article that appeared in the New York Times on Oct 18, 2016, since it was the fear of military encirclement by Washington that was driving China’s behavior, the Philippines could have pursued a more calculating policy of using the Hague legal victory as part of a strategy of getting China to agree to demilitarization of the South China Sea in return for the Philippines’ withdrawing from the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States.  

Instead, Duterte unthinkingly leaped to a policy of strategic appeasement in return for economic largesse, of trading territory and legal advantage for money.

The result has been economic largesse that is turning into a debt trap even as the strategic situation of the Philippines gets worse, as Beijing continues its base-building in the country’s territories in the West Philippine Sea, while in the heartland of the archipelago, the US is quietly using EDCA to rebuild the bases network that it lost in 1992 in order to massively project power towards China.

The new China-Philippine relationship is only two and a half years old. Some think there is still a chance for a reset. This is wishful thinking.  Unfortunately, Philippine diplomacy nowadays is guided not by strategy but by spontaneous instincts of Duterte, which are no match for the cold calculation of his idol, Xi.

Xi’s state visit will be marked by a lot of hyperbolic toasts to the “eternal friendship of the Filipino and Chinese peoples.” But the glitter of the Xie-Duterte bromance will not conceal the reality that, just as previous administrations allowed themselves to be had by Washington, this one set itself up to be conned, eyes wide open, by Beijing. – Rappler.com

 

Former Congressman Walden Bello opposed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States and authored the House resolution calling for renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea.  Ia Denise Maranon is a political analyst in the research team organization Laban ng Masa. Contact:  waldenbello@yahoo.com.