Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping
President Rodrigo Duterte and People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping pose for posterity prior to the start of the bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 25, 2019. (King Rodriguez/Presidential Photo)

Why the seeming change in the Duterte regime’s response to Chinese aggression in the West Philippine Sea?  Is it because it fears that mass opposition to its refusal to do anything to stop Chinese bullying could affect the chances of its candidates at both the national and local levels on May 13?

President Rodrigo Duterte initiated the seeming about-face some three weeks ago by telling his Chinese benefactors to stay away from Pag-Asa island. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) followed that up with a declaration that the “swarm” of Chinese sea craft around that part of Palawan was totally unacceptable to the Philippines. Both assumed the validity of the United Nations arbitration tribunal’s declaration that the areas in and around the Spratlys are the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and part of its continental shelf. Mr. Duterte’s spokesperson did in fact say, for the first time  that anyone in the administration has ever done so, that the current regime respects the UN decision.

These statements are in sharp contrast with what they were saying only some four weeks ago. Whenever anyone suggested that the regime do something about China’s illegal occupation and militarization of the West Philippine Sea, Mr. Duterte, his spokesperson and the DFA had previously chorused that the Philippines can’t win a war with that country — period, discussion over.

That the Philippines can’t win a war against China is true. But it is also misleading. The country certainly can’t rely on its armed forces — “my soldiers,” as Mr. Duterte refers to them as if they were his property — to defend it. Established by the US colonial regime at the turn of the 20th century to hunt down the remnants of the Katipunan, the Philippine armed services have since remained internal pacification forces charged with protecting the rule of the oligarchy and its foreign accomplices. Their expertise is keeping social unrest at bay rather than defending the country from external foes. They failed to stop the Japanese invasion during World War II. But they did manage 25 years later to keep Ferdinand Marcos in power for over two decades by, among other foul means, abducting, torturing and murdering protesting Filipinos in his behalf. There is no evidence to show that they’re doing things differently today.

No, with armed forces like these, the Philippines can’t win a war  with any country in Asia,  least of all with China.

But Mr. Duterte and company are nevertheless misleading Filipinos and the rest of the world when they make it appear as if the only alternative to supine silence before China’s incursions is to go to war with it. The reality is that there are other options, among them protesting before the UN and international courts. But if the Duterte regime were more imaginative — and really committed to the defense of Philippine sovereignty — it could also rally world opinion to the Philippine side by using the huge budget of the government media system to so convince the international community of the extent of Chinese lawlessness that it would be led to condemn and isolate it politically. The over P200 million budget with which Mr. Duterte has endowed the Presidential Communications Operations Office (PCOO) is instead being squandered on defending him, his family and his cronies from criticism, attacking the independent press, overpaying its top-heavy bureaucracy, and going on junkets disguised as “press freedom caravans” across Europe and the Philippines.

In much of Africa and Asia, China’s use of the debt trap and gunboat diplomacy to advance its economic and military interests has been widely exposed. Rallying world opinion in support of the Philippines shouldn’t be difficult, given that global context.

But only reluctantly is the Duterte regime trying to make itself seem concerned about Philippine interests. Its foreign affairs secretary only recently dismissed protests over Chinese fishermen’s harvesting clams in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone because what is involved is “just food,” which so starkly reveals his and the regime he serves’ insensitivity not only to the plight of Filipino fisherfolk who are being robbed of their catch and prevented by Chinese coast guard cutters from accessing their fishing grounds, but also to the poachers’ and their government’s destruction of the marine environment. 

Neither have regime candidates for the Senate or even local posts taken the cue from their Malacanang bosses. They have remained silent about the issue, just as they have evaded discussing their position on such other concerns as the extrajudicial killings and human rights violations that have put the Philippines in the list of the most  dangerous countries on the planet. Mr. Duterte’s equally clueless supporters, the keyboard armies under government pay, and at least one actor past his prime, have also continued to propagate the “it’s-either-war-or-subservience” narrative.

For whatever they’re worth, the results of all the public opinion surveys suggest that as in past elections, much of the electorate will cast their votes  on the basis of name recall, who can best dance and sing and make stupid jokes, and in total ignorance of the issues. Neither the regime attacks on the independent press, the extrajudicial killings in the course of the drug “war” that have targeted the poor, Mr. Duterte’s call to rob and kill bishops and his insulting Catholics and God Himself, and his misogyny, nor the exponential growth of his and his family’s wealth seem to have mattered. The lawlessness, threats and violence that are the regime response to protest and criticism that it is threatening to impose on the entire country by savaging the bill of rights provisions of the 1987 Constitution have not had much of an impact on most voters’ declared choices for May 13 either. If we can believe them, the survey results say they will still vote for those responsible for the country’s accelerated descent to barbarism and unreason, as well as for plunderers, flagrant liars, and the morally and intellectually challenged.

Mr. Duterte and his online trolls, the government media system under his control, and the police and military’s campaigning for regime candidates and against the opposition have not made the May 13 elections any better. But it is ironically also the regime that could help make a difference in the coming elections, and it has to do with its China policy.

The more focused opposition candidates have correctly concentrated on human rights issues. But what has seemed to have resonated most among the electorate is the quite obvious and undisguised sell-out of Philippine interests to the Chinese behemoth. It is not only evident in the regime’s silence over China’s military occupation of the West Philippine Sea, but includes its throwing the country’s doors open to illegal Chinese workers, its getting into loan and other agreements that are disadvantageous to the Philippines, and its tolerance of  the growing community of Chinese workers who behave like a conquering horde endowed with huge salaries, posh residences, and even their own shops and restaurants from which Filipinos are excluded.

Equally relevant, however, is most Filipinos’ pro-US sentiments, against which Mr. Duterte’s Sinophilia and loudly proclaimed  though hollow anti-Americanism are in collision course. Those sentiments are being reinforced by the brazenness of Chinese incursions and making the US look like everyone’s preferred overlord. It’s the devil we know versus the devil we don’t.

Because of the climate of fear generated by regime repression, Filipino outrage is largely concealed but nevertheless simmering and likely to find expression on May 13 regardless of the surveys — the current results of which could be misleadingly transient. The Chinese connection is the regime’s most vulnerable point, its Achilles’ heel.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from

Prof. Luis V. Teodoro is a former dean of the University of the Philippines College of Mass Communication, where he used to teach journalism. He writes political commentary for BusinessWorld.

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