In politics, they say, there are neither permanent friends nor enemies, only permanent interests. The problem with this realpolitik cliche is it’s only half-true. After all, interests themselves are not permanent, since our preferences and goals evolve over time, depending on our historical interactions with the outside world and internal reflections on the meaning and purpose of existence.
And this brings us to the almost existential question the Philippines faces today: Is China our “friend”? And, accordingly, have President Rodrigo Duterte’s Beijing-friendly policies worked in favour of our national interest?
Since the beginning of this year, an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels has swarmed the Spratlys’ Thitu Island, which has hosted Filipino troops and civilians for more than four decades.
In many ways, this is increasingly looking like Duterte’s own version of the Scarborough Shoal crisis, except on a far worse scale.
There have been as many as 657 sightings of, and 275 individual Chinese vessels involved, in what increasingly looks like an all-out siege on Thitu. This is a classic Chinese “grey zone” strategy aimed at displacing other claimant states through deployment of ostensibly “fishing” vessels instead of using warships.
The armada of Chinese vessels hits four birds with one stone (or rather 275 vessels).
First, it restricts Philippine movements in the area, including our fishermen. Second, it threatens and intimidates Philippine supply lines and surveillance activities. Third, it spies and monitors our maintenance activities on Thitu. And last, it prevents us from building structures on Sandy Cay, a low-tide elevation within the territorial sea of Thitu.
Having built giant artificial islands (likely using our own soil) and fully militarised them with state-of-the-art weapons, China ultimately wants to dominate the whole South China Sea without firing a single shot. And the deployment of paramilitary forces is crucial to the fulfilment of this objective.
And yet, Duterte insists that China is a “friend”, an ally crucial for our national development goals.
The first time I heard this line from him was during a 2016 interview with China’s CCTV (Now CGTN) channel, during an interview with Duterte, Philippine Senator Grace Poe and me on the future of Philippine-China relations after the 2016 elections.
In the video, you see a completely different Duterte. No trace of his brash, and almost crass, political lexicon. Far from an overexcited and tough-talking populist, essentially the image he has projected before much of the world over the years, what you instead see is a sober and contemplative leader.
I’ve noticed that this is the President Duterte one sees every time he visits China, a country he is set to visit for the fourth time in less than three years. During the interview, the former city mayor not only described China as a developmental partner, but also expressed a defeatist view on the South China Sea disputes.
Just months before the arbitral tribunal verdict on the South China Sea disputes came out, Duterte told the Chinese news channel: “If we cannot enforce [it], and if the United Nations cannot enforce its judgement, then what the heck?”
The message to Beijing was clear: I am willing to work with you and look at avenues of cooperation almost irrespective of the disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Sensing Filipino defeatism, however, China has only accelerated what former president Fidel Ramos described to me as the “creeping invasion” of the West Philippine Sea. This is why, as former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales said, “You are stupid if you don’t assert your rights.”
Facts on the ground clearly confirm former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario’s Orwellian conundrum throughout his five years of dealing with Beijing – namely, that whatever they say tends to be “the opposite of truth”.
China may have been a friend at some point in history, the same way imperial Japan and 19th-century America were our enemies at another point.
But at this juncture, China is not treating us as a “friend”, but more like a potential vassal state for an emerging global empire. As things stand, China may be a friend of Duterte, but not necessarily of the Filipino people.