Philippines-China relations

[OPINION] A song of steel and concrete

Tonchi Esguerra
[OPINION] A song of steel and concrete
'The public must remain vigilant over any undue influence China might exercise over the 2022 elections'

China’s ascent as a main player in the global game of thrones is built on steel and concrete.

Domestically, modernization brought about by the country’s rapid economic development in the past three decades has created megalopolises to cater to the migration towards city centers. The three biggest city clusters alone (Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei, Yangtze River Delta, and Pearl River Delta) are home to more than half of the publicly listed companies in local boards and at least 80% of the Chinese companies listed in the Global Fortune 500 for 2020.

Abroad, Chinese steel and concrete also lay the foundations of a global supply chain with Beijing at its helm and focal point. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), started in 2013, aimed to connect 70 countries through rabid loans and investments on dams, power stations, railways, road networks, and ports. BRI’s pipe dream, estimated to influence 60% of the world’s population and 40% of the global economy, was China’s way of cementing its role as a global superpower. This is almost reminiscent of the massive overseas investment done by the United States at the middle of the 20th century through the Marshall Plan and the subsequent creation of the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (now World Bank) and the International Monetary Fund.

However, rust and cracks in Chinese steel and concrete have been exposed in the past few years.

Underneath the rapid urbanization and the consequent real estate booms that lay as the foundation of China’s modern cities, a housing bubble brought by drastic increase in property prices has created ghost cities where swaths of real estate remain unsold and unoccupied. On the other hand, the BRI has been increasingly tagged as a debt trap that preys on developing countries through the provision of onerous loans that collateralize the property itself that is being developed.

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Polishing/Policing Beijing’s Iron Throne

While the rest of the world was worrying with the surge of COVID cases brought about by the Delta variant, Beijing was neck-deep in preparing for the 100th year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Backdropped by several geopolitical frictions, including the COVID-19 pandemic, word war with the United States, island building in contested territories of the West Philippine Sea/South China Sea, condemnation of state violence against the Uighurs, quelling of dissent in Hong Kong, as well as increased tension with the government of Taiwan, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s speech solidified China’s de facto stance against the so called bullies in the international arena – that they will be met with “a great wall of steel forged by the blood and flesh of 1.4 billion Chinese people.”

And at the helm of these celebrations, cracks, crevices, and contradictions on China’s state-sponsored enterprises as a global political and economic power are increasingly exposed for the whole world to see.

In November, Chinese steel and concrete further showed the propped up structure buckling under its own weight. China’s biggest property developer, Evergrande, was reported to be under $300 billion worth of debt and is under even more pressure as it inches towards default as it misses interest payments.

For decades, China’s aggressive model of development by providing low interest rates to state partners has fueled risky speculation that created one real estate bubble after another. Furthermore, state regulation of bloated credit and property prices came too little and too late. Evergrande’s potential collapse – or any subsequent market assumptions for that matter – will certainly trigger a restructuring of Beijing’s policies on borrowings and bailouts, both inside and outside its Great Walls. The eventual repercussions of this financing crisis will eventually show China’s failure as a centrally planned economy – falling into the same anarchy that led to the Financial Crisis of 2008.

On the first week of December, the United States, Australia, and the United Kingdom announced a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics, citing as reason the genocide and human rights abuses perpetrated by the Chinese Party State in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Hongkong. China immediately quipped back at Washington, saying that the boycott would harm bilateral relations between the two countries.

Although the diplomatic boycott of these countries against the Chinese-sponsored Olympics is not of the same strength as the US-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics at the height of the Cold War, the context behind this diplomatic tension would reveal the gravity of the situation. In September this year, the three boycotting countries signed a trilateral security pact dubbed as AUKUS. The pact aims to increase nuclear presence in the Asia-Pacific Region, a move that according to China, was born out of a Cold War mentality and would undermine peace and stability in the region.

The United States’ announcement of diplomatic boycott also coincides with Beijing not being invited to US President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, as if reflecting Washington’s hard stance against China’s political system. The Chinese Party State is quick to react by holding its own democracy dialogue and releasing a white paper titled “China: Democracy that Works.”

Dancing with dragons

As rising geopolitical tensions with China dictate the tempo of the global order, the Philippines is deep-seated with its own political circuses leading towards the 2022 elections. However, it must be noted that domestic politics could not help but be entangled with foreign policies and influenced by foreign interventions. Recent history will remind us of President Duterte’s campaign promise to ride a jet ski to the contested territory of Scarborough Shoal to plant a Philippine flag in Chinese facilities.

China’s path towards becoming a global superpower supposedly involves using its networks and machineries to influence public opinion abroad. Its industrial and technological power base have reportedly been used to create and echo social media content that are pro-Beijing and are critical of the West. This propaganda machinery is a replication of the same policy employed by Beijing in stifling dissent and quashing criticisms against the Chinese Communist Party in its own backyard.

In the Philippines, it is claimed that Beijing’s influence far exceeds the mere shaping of public opinion. Earlier this year, former foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario stated that senior Chinese officials have boasted their influence over the 2016 elections. And this revealed plot twist fits. Duterte’s earlier efforts to connect his Build, Build, Build program with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the supposedly independent foreign policy that veered away from Washington while anchoring itself with Beijing, as well as his inconsistent attitude regarding the West Philippine Sea, have largely benefited China and its interests in the Philippines.

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And it seems that his de facto chosen ones are continuing this narrative as well.

In October, presidential aspirant Bongbong Marcos and his family met with the Chinese Ambassador and attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Chinese Embassy in Manila. It must be noted that it was during the time of the older Marcos that the Philippines started diplomatic ties with the People’s Republic of China in 1975. The younger Marcos has also been very vocal in supporting the appeasement – if not defeatist – policy practiced by the Duterte Administration with China regarding the West Philippine Sea. On the other hand, in November, Marcos’ running mate, vice presidential hopeful Mayor Inday Sara Duterte attended and delivered remarks in China’s hosting of the Asia Youth Leaders Forum. Along with her was former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

While these showings may be nothing more but institutional niceties and diplomatic courtesy, the public must remain vigilant over any undue influence China might exercise over the 2022 elections.

Certainly, it is a wee bit too early for Beijing to christen its Manchurian candidate right now. Even President Duterte lashed invective remarks against China during the campaign period to brandish patriotism and woo the voters – only to retract his jet ski promise as a joke years later. As long as public awareness on the West Philippine Sea issue is high, any candidate perceived to be pro-Beijing will surely be punished by the electorate. And if recent elections have taught us one thing, it takes a well-oiled political narrative to appease both the electorate and the playmakers abroad.

Politics is indeed a game of thrones. And the real Manchurian candidate will only reveal itself once seated in the throne in Malacanang. – Rappler.com

Tony Esguerra is an NGO worker, community volunteer, and social reform advocate. He traces his spiritual roots in the mountains of the Cordilleras.