President Rodrigo Roa Duterte accompanies President Xi Jinping of People’s Republic of China as the latter signs the guest book upon his arrival at the Malacañan Palace for his state visit to the Philippines on November 20, 2018. Also in the photo is Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte-Carpio. (Albert Alcain/Presidential Photo)

The public opinion surveys of the past year or so have confirmed that most Filipinos distrust China while wholeheartedly favoring the United States. Over a majority of the population are skeptical of the former’s intentions, and would like the Philippine government to do something about its occupation of the West Philippine Sea.

China has militarized the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, and its coast guard cutters have been harassing Filipino fisherfolk, driving them from their traditional fishing grounds, and in some instances even robbing them of their catch. It has lately sent hundreds of sea craft that it insists are non-military and unarmed in the vicinity of Pag-Asa island. The lone barangay of the Philippine municipality of Kalayaan is on Pag-Asa, but past experience suggests that China could very well be eyeing it for occupation.

The flotilla of Chinese vessels and the seeming threat to Pag-Asa seem to have moved the Duterte regime to protest the Chinese presence via the Department  of Foreign Affairs, and President Rodrigo Duterte to warn the Chinese to keep off the island or else risk war.

Mr. Duterte said in one of his rambling speeches that if China tries to occupy Pag-Asa, he will send more troops there on a “suicide mission” to defend the island. Even Duterte ally Senator Richard Gordon has weighed in by declaring that a country that sends its military forces to the WPS and harasses Filipino fisherfolk is no friend of the Philippines, contrary to what Mr. Duterte and his henchmen have been saying.

Both the DFA’s diplomatic protests and Mr. Duterte’s attempt at a little saber-rattling are a bit too late. As Mr. Duterte has said a number of times, China is now in control of the WPS. Despite the presence of Philippine troops there, it is quite capable of seizing Pag-Asa if it wants to. As usual contradicting his own statements, Mr. Duterte said in the same speech that he wasn’t really about to go to war with China, and was apparently just bluffing about sending a “suicide mission” to Pag-Asa. He pointed out that the Philippines is entirely at the mercy of Chinese missiles, which that country has deployed on its artificial island-bases —  to the construction of which the Duterte regime did not object when it was going on. Neither did the government protest China’s positioning its missiles within striking distance of the rest of the Philippines, including its capital.

Those who have been protesting the regime’s do-nothing policy in the face of Chinese aggression can’t be blamed for suspecting that the seeming shift in its China narrative is intended to influence the results of the midterm elections that are barely five weeks away. Because much of the electorate is dissatisfied with his China policy, it does seem like an attempt to convince the voters that Mr. Duterte and his candidates for the Senate and local posts aren’t really afraid of displeasing China by defending Philippine sovereignty. Despite their demonstrated partiality for, and embarrassing subservience to China, they have had to reluctantly acknowledge the anti-China — and together with it, the pro-US — sentiments of most Filipinos,

The reality is that in its determination to be the next world hegemon after the United States, China has a distinct disadvantage. US prestige and power may be in decline globally, but as the opinion polls have found, it is still the US that most Filipinos trust while being skeptical of China. The reasons are deeply rooted in the history of Philippines-China relations and those between the Philippines and the US.

China and what is now the Philippines have had mostly trade relations that go back several centuries, and many Filipinos have a Chinese ancestor or two in their family trees. But Spanish colonial rule, with its racist foundations, downplayed the first and made the second a disadvantage. 

Not only did Spain isolate the Chinese in enclaves called “parians” during its 300-year occupation of the Philippines;  it also subjected them to periodic massacres and mass arrests until the 18th century, which imperiled even the liberty and fortunes of those with mixed ancestry (mestizos). As a consequence, most Filipinos echoed Spanish racism by disparaging and discriminating against the Chinese among them.

The US experiment in colonial rule was initially assured through the use of force, but relied as well on cultural power to compel obedience from the “natives.” That power was generated through the forcible use of the English language and the indoctrination of the political elite under its tutelage on such alleged US values as freedom, democracy and individual rights, and the benevolence and supremacy of “the American way,” which eventually found expression in the US-established educational system as well as in the arts, literature, and  mass media of the Philippines.

Quite possibly the most successful experiment of its kind in history, US colonialism and imperialism made the Filipino mind a bastion of approval and support for US hegemony. There are material and institutional bases for it such as military and economic aid, and, among others, compacts like the Mutual Defense Treaty and the Visiting Forces Agreement. The use of force is still part of its arsenal of conquest and domination, but US preeminence in the most strategic areas of Philippine life and governance has mostly been assured by its ideological supremacy in the public sphere.

The Philippine population’s US connection is both materially and subjectively based. Together with its minimal subjective influence, China is in contrast still perceived through an anti-communism lens. A legacy of the Cold War, anti-communism has always been the main ideological bias of both US-influenced media and the US music, film, and television industries whose market is the entire world.

China is no longer the socialist country it once was, and is blatantly and aggressively capitalist. But the perception that it is still the China of Mao Zedong persists, with some of those opposed to Chinese intrusion into the WPS attributing its brazenness to its supposed “communism.” The truth is that it was during the period of socialist construction when China made mutual respect and benefit the basis of its international relations, in contrast to its current focus on advancing its interests no matter the consequences on other countries.

China has been trying to influence the Filipino mind through scholarships, films, TV program sponsorships, and familiarization trips with the approval and support of the Duterte regime. These efforts have nevertheless had little visible effect on the Filipino millions, among other reasons because they have been addressed only to a small segment of the population, and cannot even begin to compare with the power of the English language that was early on assured by US colonial policy in the Philippines in the 1900s.

English is the conduit through which the US culture industry keeps US political and ideological influence dominant in this neo-colony. That dominance is the primary reason for the failure of the Duterte regime’s campaign to make its Chinese connection widely acceptable — and for the continuing support for US political, economic and strategic interests among most Filipinos.

Despite its economic power and growing military might, it will take China several generations to even approximate the ideological ascendancy of the US in this country and in much of the world that it seeks to dominate. Hence its use of intimidation, such early 20th century capitalist tricks as the conspicuous display of military power known as gunboat diplomacy, and other far from subtle means to achieve its aims in the Philippines as well as in the rest of the planet.

Also published in BusinessWorld. Photo from PCOO.

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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