PRESIDENT Rodrigo R. Duterte’s popularity may get dented for the first time by his pro-China policy combined with his government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, according to a political analyst.
“Its strength, of course is populism, and therefore the Achilles heel of the Duterte government is COVID-19 (coronavirus disease 2019) and China,” Robin Michael Garcia, chief executive officer of polling firm WR Numero research, said in an online interview last week.
“It will definitely affect the numbers because this is a cross-cutting issue that even the people who supported Duterte do not agree with him on both China and COVID,” he added.
Filipinos’ net trust ratings were a “good” +42 for the United States, a “moderate” +27 for Australia, and a “bad” -36 for China, the Social Weather Stations (SWS) said in a statement on Sunday, citing the results of its July poll.
Net trust fell from poor to bad for China, down by 9 points from -27 in December. This was the lowest since the bad -37 in April 2016, the polling firm said.
Net trust in China has been positive in only 9 out of 53 polls since SWS first conducted the poll in August 1994. It reached as high as a moderate +17 in June 2010 and as low as a bad -46 in September 2015, it said.
Net trust fell from very good to good for the US, down by 25 points from +67 in December, SWS said. This was the lowest since the good +35 in March 2010.
Net trust in the United States has been positive since SWS first included it in the poll in December 1994. Out of 68 surveys, it ranged from moderate +18 in May 2005 to excellent +82 in December 2013.
Mr. Garcia said the tough-talking Philippine leader must assert Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea and protect the people from the global health crisis if he wants to keep his strongman image.
“If he’s not able to stand up against these issues, which is also the reason why he was elected in the first place, then this whole image of strongman will be absent,” he said.
The twin issues could also affect the chances of his anointed candidate in the 2022 presidential elections, he said.
WR Numero found in an April poll that 82% of Filipinos agreed China was a threat to the Philippines and 64% said it should be condemned for allowing the coronavirus, which was first detected in Wuhan City, to spread worldwide.
The poll also showed that seven of 10 Filipinos wanted China to pay for damages from the pandemic that has sickened more than 65,000 and killed about 1,700 people in the Philippines.
The poll also found 54% of Filipinos saw China as a good ally, largely linked to expected economic benefits from its Belt and Road initiative. But Mr. Garcia expects the support to delince.
“The reason why 54% of people still believe that China may be a good ally is because of perhaps the economic benefits that China may still continue to give in the next few months,” he said.
“As these investments fail to materialize, then we can see that the numbers will continue to dip,” he added.
Mr. Garcia said the government must improve its national security strategy, while asserting its rights in the South China Sea through diplomatic protest.
“Rhetoric is not enough,” he said. “We need to be able to really create a grand strategy of improving our security policy, our security capabilities, alliance policy as well with the United States and China.”
A poll by the SWS in July found that seven of 10 Filipinos wanted the government of President Duterte to assert the country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.
Philippine citizens also think China should be held accountable for allegedly failing to disclose information about the novel coronavirus, SWS said in a statement this month.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin, Jr. earlier this month said a 2016 decision by a United Nations tribunal rejecting China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea is nonnegotiable.
The Department of Foreign Affairs issued the statement on the fourth anniversary of the decision favoring the Philippines in the arbitration case filed by the government of then President Benigno S. C. Aquino III against China.
The tribunal ruled that China’s claim of historic rights to resources within the sea under the so-called “nine-dash line” was illegal.
The court said the Philippines could declare certain areas of the sea as part of its exclusive economic zone because these areas do not overlap with any entitlements claimed by China.
Certain Chinese actions in the South China Sea violated Philippine sovereign rights, the court said. It added that China’s island-building activities in the disputed waterway had caused severe environmental harm in violation of international law.
Mr. Duterte has sought closer trade and investment ties with China since he took office in 2016, including potential joint explorations for oil and gas in the South China Sea.
SWS found that four out of five Filipinos, or 82%, thought the government should ally itself with other countries that were likely to aid the Philippines in defending its territory.
Meanwhile, three of five Filipinos thought China had held back information on the virus. Seven of 10 Filipinos said China should be held accountable for the pandemic.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week said China’s expansive maritime claims across most of the South China Sea were “completely unlawful.” — Charmaine A. Tadalan