The sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea by a Chinese vessel has created a sticky public relations situation for the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.
The usual extremists have added fuel to an already incendiary situation. Duterte critics, who believe that he has become too subservient to the Chinese, have pointed to the incident as one more proof that Duterte has been bahag ang buntot when it comes to Chinese bullying. The term literally means a dog with its tail between its legs, implying cowardice.
On the other hand, Duterte defenders have characterized the criticism against Duterte as a demand for a declaration of war against China, which they describe as suicidal. It is said that the DDS (die-hard Duterte supporters) are purposely raising the “war” scare to silence those who are legitimately and logically demanding an explanation of the incident from China.
In fact, Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo has demanded such an explanation from the Chinese and Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana has sharply criticized the fact that the crew of the Chinese boat did not assist the Filipino fishermen in the sinking vessel (Lorenzana has since softened his stance). Neither one is declaring war.
What bothers sensible observers is the way the Duterte government has handled — or mishandled — relations with China. For someone who threatened all kinds of sanctions against Canada for shipping garbage to the Philippines, Duterte has been unusually tongue-tied in the case of the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat. He has left it to Panelo and Lorenzana to protest the incident. And when the Chinese tried passing the blame on to “seven or eight Filipino fishing boats” that ostensibly “besieged” the Chinese boat, causing it to hit the Filipino boat, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. engaged in clumsy diplomatese.
Said Locsin: “Interesting. That’s China’s take and it is a free world; it can say anything it wants. We say what we want because it is a free world for us too; but in our case we speak from the law of the sea. But still everyone’s free.”
Locsin should just have kept his foot out of his mouth.
What I think is happening is that China’s increasing assertiveness in the contested sea lanes has emboldened Chinese fishing boats to virtually throw their weight around in the fishing grounds and the Chinese government has abetted it. The situation could become more and more incendiary. We can only pray that it doesn’t explode and get out of control.
The situation prompted me to dig up my old files for reference. And I found a piece that I wrote in May 2012 about a bad dream that I had:
“I dreamed that the Chinese invaded the Philippines after the confrontation at the West Philippine Sea finally exploded into an all-out war… The AFP was no match to the vastly superior Chinese forces. Although our soldiers fought gallantly, the war was over in a few days. The entire country found itself completely under Chinese control…
“I dreamed that, while the U.S. had committed to come to the defense of the Philippines in case of an enemy attack, America was too engrossed with the forthcoming presidential elections; it hardly had any time to respond. That was the official line conveyed by the White House. On Wall Street, however, knowledgeable quarters said that America could not afford to intervene, for fear of a massive withdrawal of Chinese investments in the U.S., which would cause the American economy to collapse.
“I dreamed that the process of transforming the Philippines into a Chinese province was immediately ordered by Beijing. The largest businesses in the country were taken over by the Chinese. In fact, the name of the biggest chain of shopping malls was changed to SM Sio Mai. Another chain was renamed Lo Bin Soon.
“Ownership of the country’s flag carrier, Philippine Airlines, was wrested by Chinese taipans. The same taipans also took over the largest banks and manufacturing firms in the country, thus completing Chinese dominance of Philippine trade, commerce, and industry, as well as the financial sector.
“In the provinces, farming, rice milling, fishing and other means of livelihood were taken over by the Chinese, with Filipinos merely providing the labor. Even the sari-sari stores were mostly Chinese-owned…
“Manila, the country’s premier city, immediately fell into Chinese hands with a mayor named Lim occupying City Hall. But what completed the control of the country was the takeover of Malacañang by a new president named Co Hwang Coh.”
I wrote that piece over seven years ago. I am beginning to realize that, except for the corny puns and the absence of fireworks, much of what I thought was a bad dream has actually come true. For one thing, the Philippine economy is dominated by the Chinese.
Of course, the taipans are Filipinos of Chinese ethnicity. But with China flexing its financial muscle, what could happen is that they will eventually be displaced by mainland Chinese taipans. This may already be happening in countries that have incurred huge loans from China and have had to give up control of facilities, such as ports and infrastructure, due to their inability to pay.
Lest I be misunderstood, we should not begrudge the Chinese for their business success. They are entrepreneurs and they have the work ethic, the vision, and the daring to match their entrepreneurship. It has also been said that while Filipino parents send their children to the best schools so that they can land good jobs, Chinese parents do the same so that their children can set up their own businesses. In fact, I wrote one column entitled “Learning from the Chinese,” which suggested that Pinoys should shed the “employee mentality” and strive to be employers.
But our relations with China appears to be deteriorating, with the Philippines getting the short end of the situation. For instance, Duterte has also allowed a “flood” of Chinese workers to enter the country, many of them without work permits. Duterte’s logic defies, well, logic. According to him, he does not want to go after the illegal Chinese workers because the Chinese government might retaliate by going after illegal Filipino workers in China.
To rub salt on the sore, Chinese construction workers assigned to the “Build, Build, Build” program of the Duterte government are reportedly paid much, much more than Filipinos. A blog by “Sa Bayan ni Juan” reports that “Chinese construction workers currently working in the Philippines are earning as much as P3,000 per day or P90,000 per month.” In contrast, Filipino workers only earn P400-600 per day. And the Chinese workers are also provided housing.
With no attempt to hide its sarcasm, Forbes ran an article by Panos Mourdoukoutas with the headline “Duterte opens up the Philippines to Chinese workers, as Filipino seek jobs overseas.”
My bad dream may be turning into a nightmare.
Greg B. Macabenta is an advertising and communications man shuttling between San Francisco and Manila and providing unique insights on issues from both perspectives.