Great Wall of China

The partisans of certain candidates in the old media and their  troll cohorts have been serving a regime that has so debased Philippine sovereignty Filipino fisherfolk have been denied access by a foreign power to their traditional fishing grounds in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). 

The same regime has also allowed the unrestricted entry of hundreds of thousands of Chinese workers into the Philippines despite the COVID-19 pandemic, while droves of  Filipinos leave the country daily in search of  living wages in jobs abroad. 

Emboldened by the same regime’s indifference to their brazen incursions into Philippine territorial waters, China’s military sea craft  patrol with impunity the West Philippine Sea (WPS) that it has militarized with guided missiles and other advanced weaponry and aircraft to which the whole archipelago is within striking distance. 

But it seems that Chinese bullying has been too much even for President Duterte. He earlier  declared the  Philippines’ “separation” from the United States, but not only is the regime buying millions of dollars’ worth of advanced weaponry from the US. Despite Mr. Duterte’s oft-repeated threat to end them, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) still holds joint military exercises with American troops. And Mr. Duterte’s and his military minions’ rhetoric about the “modernization” of the country’s armed forces has not changed the country’s decades-long dependence on the  US for its external defense. 

China, however, is also supplying the AFP with its own weaponry, presumably in exchange for further concessions.  They have yet to prove it, but many Filipinos  suspect that such a quid pro quo — China’s supporting Mr. Duterte’s candidacy in 2016 in exchange for excusing its intrusions — could help explain Mr. Duterte’s otherwise puzzling policy of belittling, except in rare instances, the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal’s 2016 ruling and his doing practically nothing in the defense of Philippine rights in the WPS.

But as if they were in the service of the most nationalist regime in recent history rather than what is arguably the least nationalist of them all, the trolls and faux journalists are playing the sovereignty card against the lone opposition candidate for the Presidency.  

Implicit in their allegation and warning that the US is supporting Vice President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo for that post is the assumption that it would compromise the country’s independence — or what little remains of it, no thanks to the foreign policy of  their patron.

Foreign intervention in elections or any other area of Philippine internal affairs is a legitimate enough issue, but not simply in terms of this or that country’s supporting this or that candidate. More crucially should the implications of such support be understood in terms of what its costs to this country and its people will be. 

In addition, although the United States has a long history of  meddling in Philippine politics, the most recent context in the foreign intervention issue is that it is not the only country that has an interest in what kind of government will be in power by June this year. 

Both China and the US have such an interest, and so do other countries with which the Philippines has trade and other relations, albeit perhaps to a lesser extent. Only the naive would harbor the illusion that no foreign power would support anyone in the May elections and beyond.

But what is important is what that support would consist of. Sending a team of observers to help assure free and honest elections would not qualify as a form of partisanship in favor of one candidate. After all, everyone except the cheats has an interest in the integrity of Philippine elections. What is most unacceptable is contributing to the campaign war chest of the candidate involved, or paying for the political advertising and public relations campaigns that would give the candidate an advantage over his or her rivals.

Such forms of intervention are illegal, although there is no doubt that it has happened in this country — and in others including the US, where, incidentally, there are allegations that Russia influenced the outcome of its own 2016 Presidential elections.

The second question is what the costs of that support would be, in terms of what the candidate has promised his or her benefactor by way of policies favorable to it, preferential treatment if any, or whatever else. By prioritizing another country’s interests above those of the Philippines’and thus limiting government’s capacity for independent action, the President elected with a quid pro quo debt to pay would be diminishing the country’s sovereignty. 

But the trolls and their collaborators in the old media are only partly correct in raising the foreign intervention issue. In addition to calling attention to that near-certainty, both questions — what forms of support they are getting from a foreign power if any, and what the costs to this country of that support will be — need to be asked not only of one, but of all the candidates for the Presidency. That post is the most powerful in government and therefore the most pivotal in the making and implementation of the policies that will have an inevitable impact on the lives of the Filipino millions.

Granted that for a number of reasons, US intervention is specially problematic. There is the cultural and ideological basis of its many years of influence in Philippine affairs. It is the country most trusted by Filipinos of whatever gender and social and economic status. The “special relations” between the two countries is supposedly due to their “shared values” of democracy and human rights. The US is also the Philippines’ third largest trading partner and its foremost military trainer and supplier via the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT).  

But no one should ignore the possibility that its Chinese rival for global hegemony is as likely to be supporting its own candidate. That support would be based on  how he or she could defend and advance what it has already gained. 

Although a newcomer in the imperialist game, over the last six years China has succeeded in advancing its own interests through a Philippine polity so pliable it has allowed by default the transformation of its own resource-rich seas into potential sources of energy for China’s power-hungry industries, and made its cities available as  dumping grounds for the  ne’er-do-wells of its teeming populace that could very well be its intelligence assets.  It will not and cannot surrender those gains. They are crucial to its continuing effort to replace the United States as the world’s most dominant economic and political power.  

As ethically challenged as they may be, and despite their limited understanding of the journalistic imperatives of justice and fairness, the heralds of disinformation in old and new media  could still redeem themselves by alerting the electorate to the distinct possibility that if the US is supporting one candidate for President, China is most likely supporting its own. 

That support, like that of the United States’, would be as premised on nothing nobler than self-interest. China has been exporting its authoritarian model of governance to Africa, Asia and Latin America as the ideal road to development and has supported authoritarian regimes across the planet as long as those regimes serve its economic, political and strategic goals.  

One such regime  readily comes to mind. But there are others that are equally in China’s widening orbit. Keeping the Philippines in it  would seem to be in that country’s best interest.

First published in BusinessWorld. Image from Pixabay.

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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