Post Mortem: Xi Jinping Leaves a Permanent Stain on the Philippines

Post Mortem: Xi Jinping Leaves a Permanent Stain on the Philippines
Credit: Reuters / Mark Cristino
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Rodrigo Duterte seems all too happy to sell Philippine territory to the highest bidder.

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It could not have gone better for Chinese head of state Xi Jinping during his recent two-day visit to the Philippines.

Months ahead of the meeting, President Rodrigo Duterte had already declared that he “simply loves Xi Jinping.” It represents a pretty 180 degree turn from his campaign promise of taking the country’s flag and taking a jet ski to China to proclaim Philippine independence.

Many Filipinos, on the other hand, did not appreciate Xi coming to town. There were protests, unbearable traffic jams due to unannounced road closures, airport delays and a slew of memes making use of Xi’s Winnie the Pooh moniker as an insult. Duterte, unsurprisingly, was portrayed as the hapless and dependent piglet.

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Credit: Reuters / Eloisa Lopez
Student rallyists wear masks in the likeness of Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping during a rally against China outside the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila during Xi's recent state visit to the Philippines.

The two leaders ironed out 29 deals mainly purporting to enhance economic ties. The nail in the coffin, though, seemed to be the Joint Exploration Deal, which outlines what could be a future resource grab in the West Philippine Sea, the contested territories. This came despite the Philippines having won in the International Court of Arbitration two years ago, as the area was historically part of the Southeast Asian nation’s fishing activity.

This means that the Duterte administration has not only gone back on the momentous decision in favor of his country, but has willingly surrendered the country’s territory to the much greater Chinese exploratory machine. It seems the “joke” the president made about the Philippines becoming a province of China is even less funny now.

Giving up

Among many things, the biggest justification Duterte seemed to have for the deal was to avoid any sort of military confrontation with China or any other superpower interested in the area.

Attorney Neri Colmenares, a fierce Duterte critic fired back at a protest on the day Xi Jinping visited the Presidential Palace. He said: “Vietnam has stood up to China’s intimidations regarding the South China Sea. Other countries have not bowed down to Chinese interest. Why does the Philippine government, one who even won in the court of arbitration seem to be so afraid that it readily folds as if we were the ones who lost in that decision!”

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Credit: Reuters / Erik De Castro
Members of the Akbayan activist group chant anti-China slogans as they march towards the Chinese consulate during a rally on the South China Sea dispute in Manila on July 12, 2018.

Progressive group Bayan, which led the protests during Xi’s visit, said they “decry the continuing militarization of the West Philippine Sea.” The group was referring to the buildup of Chinese forces around the area to exude exclusive claims. The group likewise underscored that the purported “joint development” between the two nations would weaken the Philippines’ position in the matter.

Duterte gave up, but for what?

Entrapment

Economic woes have plagued Filipinos for most of 2018. It started with the much maligned TRAIN law, or Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion, which raised the prices of most basic commodities making it harder for the already impoverished to access basic goods. Inflation has been pegged at 6.7 percent recently, making it the highest in 10 years, while the drop in the value of the Philippine peso has been the worst in 13 years, making it the worst performing currency among major Asian countries.

The TRAIN law will end up funding 70 percent of the flagship Build Build Build (BBB) program, which aims to aggressively re-shape the country with infrastructure. To allay unrest, the BBB has been touted by the regime as sort of an economic miracle to be performed in one fell swoop.

A large chunk of the program will enlist Chinese investors, aid, and now even a workforce. According to the think tank Ibon Foundation, the “Philippine government seeks China’s support for at least 738 billion Philippine pesos (US$14.1 billion) worth of infrastructure projects accounting for almost half of the 1.5 trillion peso (US$28.6 billion) flagship projects” under the BBB.

The group also warned against China’s “debtbook diplomacy,” which could force the Philippines to use state assets as collateral given the high interest rates (2-3 percent) set on Chinese official development assistance (ODA).

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Credit: Reuters / Erik De Castro
Rodrigo Duterte and Xi Jinping wave to the media before their recent one on one meeting at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila.

Far from being the economic adrenaline it claims to be, the BBB has resulted in more Chinese tourists entering the country and applying en masse for work permits. The Philippines has one of the highest unemployment rates in the region, so it’s no wonder some lawmakers like Grace Poe, the opponent of Duterte in the last election, say this is a red flag.

All in all, Xi’s visit seemed to galvanize the Philippines into its old colonial patterns. While many talk of a pivot to China by veering away from its traditional American partners, the country still remains in subservient ties with both.

The worrisome part is that, instead of asserting its own autonomy and independence, Duterte has steered the country towards adding a “master”: one whose reputation and recent activity already speaks volumes for the hurt it will inflict.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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