By Perry Diaz
China First or Filipino First?
Since 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte was elected president of the Philippines, the demographic landscape of the country has dramatically changed with the immigration of Chinese nationals from Mainland China. Duterte, who claimed Chinese blood from his mother, has demonstrated an openly biased pro-China policy. However, his Chinese heritage doesn’t seem to influence his pro-Chinese leaning, which is most likely due to his political and financial self-interests or to put it bluntly, anti-American sentiments.
The first thing he did was to throw away the arbitral ruling victory that the previous president Benigno Aquino III had won. It would have been a big geopolitical victory over the South China Sea territorial dispute with China. But he virtually gave up the Philippines’ territorial claim over the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal. Our 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) was claimed by China since it is within the nine-dash line boundary that China imposed ownership on about 80% of the South China Sea. In effect, if we recognize China’s nine-dash line boundary, the Philippines’ sovereignty extends to just the standard 12-mile territorial boundary. Beyond that would be Chinese territory.
When Duterte visited China in 2016, he brought home a $24-billion investment package for his ambitious infrastructure projects. But none has materialized since then, which makes one wonder: “Did Xi take Duterte for a ride?” For whatever reason, Xi isn’t delivering the projects he promised Duterte. One is led to believe that he’s holding the projects hostage to get more concessions from Duterte.
War with China
It must have been heart-breaking for Duterte, when he told Chinese President Xi Jinping during his visit to China in 2017: “We intend to drill oil there [Spratly Islands], if it’s yours, well, that’s your view, but my view is, I can drill the oil, if there is some inside the bowels of the earth because it is ours.” Xi bluntly told Duterte, ”There would be war if Manila tried to enforce an arbitration ruling and drill for oil in a disputed part of the South China Sea.” So, is this the game Xi has been playing all along?
When Xi visited the Philippines in 2018, Duterte and Xi signed 29 deals in a framework agreement that set the stage for a joint oil and gas exploration in the South China Sea. The agreement was based on the $24-billion investment pledges Xi made in 2016. In effect Duterte gave away sovereign rights to the disputed area. It’s no longer exclusively owned by the Philippines, which makes one wonder: What did Duterte get in return? Nothing yet. And at the rate things have been moving, it led some to believe that the loan deals could be a case of “broken promises.” It could also be a “policy of appeasement” toward China, hoping that China would soon deliver its part of the bargain.
But what is appalling is a stipulation in the framework agreement that Chinese businesses would be employing Chinese nationals only. As the number of Chinese workers increases in number, the same number of Filipino workers is displaced. A case in point is construction and Pogos – Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators– that are exclusively employing Chinese from Mainland China.
And because virtually all the Chinese workers are male, they need women to satisfy their sexual needs. And this is where thousands of female Chinese are in the Philippines, to cater exclusively to the Chinese male employees in Pogos and other industries such as construction and restaurants. This is creating another problem: crime and prostitution.
Duterte’s China First policy has created animosity against China primarily because of China’s aggression in the South China Sea. Many Filipinos believe that Duterte’s inclination to placate and please China has a negative impression on the Filipinos’ attitude towards Chinese nationals. Postings in social media are critical of the Chinese nationals’ rude treatment of Filipinos. Some restaurants will cater exclusively to Chinese and some condominiums are sold exclusively to Chinese nationals. A lot of Filipinos, resentful of the bad image of Chinese nationals, blame Duterte for their influx to the country – many of which are illegal aliens – whom they accuse of treating the native Filipinos as second-class citizens. And this brings back stories of how the natives – indios – were treated during the Spanish colonial era and the Japanese occupation during World War II. It’s déjà vu all over again.
Generally, native Filipinos are friendly to Philippine-born Chinese and Chinese-Filipinos (Chinoys). In particular, Filipinos are grateful to Chinese business tycoons (taipans) for their contributions to the economy of the Philippines. However, Filipinos have developed a dislike for Mainland Chinese because of their arrogant and rude behavior. And it’s creating an atmosphere of Sinophobia in what was once a harmonious relationship among Filipinos and Chinese.
President Duterte has to put a stop to this Sinophobia. It’s not healthy. He has to bring his administration back to the people by demonstrating a genuine Filipino First policy that improves the economic status of Filipinos and protect the Philippines’ sovereignty and territorial integrity. He needs to pursue the United Nations’ arbitral ruling and actively lay claim to the disputed territory through the United Nations. He has to adopt a truly independent and balanced foreign policy, not an exclusively pro-China foreign policy, as is the case today.
The late president Carlos P. Garcia, favoring Philippine interests over American interests first started “Filipino First” policy. The effects of the policy were seen in investment in Philippine industry, the creation of new businesses, and rising local investment in local initiatives. Filipino First made the Filipinos proud of being Filipino and imbued them with nationalist fervor. But Garcia’s successor, Diosdado Macapagal dismantled the policy in favor of closer economic and military ties with the U.S. With an active communist insurgency then, the Macapagal government had to maintain a strong defense arrangement with the U.S.
When the American bases were removed in 1992 as a result of the Philippine Senate’s failure to renew the bases agreement, China began eyeing the Spratly Islands to further its territorial expansion. In 1994, China occupied the Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), which is within the Philippines’ EEZ. Then President Fidel Ramos was helplessly at China’s mercy and he couldn’t do anything to take back the reef. In 2014, China began building artificial islands in the Spratly archipelago. With no warships and no air force, the Philippines couldn’t repel the Chinese aggression. Surmise it to say, if the American bases were still in the Philippines, China wouldn’t have dared grab a piece of Philippine territory without drawing the U.S. armed forces to defend the country.
The Philippines is defenseless against Chinese aggression particularly now that Duterte is scrapping the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the U.S., which makes one wonder: what would Duterte do the next time Xi threatens him with war?
This is not the time to terminate our military ties with the U.S. The Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) is our insurance against Chinese aggression. But with the bases gone, which serve as deterrence against Chinese invasion, Duterte has to maintain good relations with the U.S. who has been our greatest ally — politically, economically, militarily, and culturally. The bond between America and the Philippines has never been stronger and Duterte should not forget this. There are five million Filipino-Americans who send billions of dollars in remittances to their relatives in the Philippines, which is a major factor in uplifting the lives of Filipinos. Polls show that Americans are the most loved among Filipinos.
It’s time to do away with Duterte’s China First policy and bring back the good old Filipino First policy.