Skepticism pays

Skepticism — doubting whether someone’s statements or acts are what they seem or sound like, and considering the possibility that they’re meant to deceive — has never been as useful a guide in navigating the confusion and chaos of Philippine governance and politics than during the current election season.

No one should make any mistake about it: it is because of the 2022 elections that Rodrigo Duterte found the courage to say something other than acquiescent, defeatist, and incoherent ramblings about China’s continuing assaults on the people of the country of which he is the outgoing President.

Mr. Duterte told a China-ASEAN Summit meeting on Nov. 22 that the Philippines “abhors” the Nov. 16 blocking and water-cannoning of the Philippine supply ships that were on their way to the Marine detachment at Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

He also said, and reiterated it during the Asia-Europe Summit on Nov. 27, that only the observance of the rule of law could ease tensions in the West Philippine Sea — as indeed it could. But he did not explicitly address China. Indifferent to and contemptuous of international law, it is that country that totally ignored the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal’s ruling that huge parts of what it is arbitrarily claiming as its territory are in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).

Mr. Duterte is running for senator while his daughter Sara is a candidate for Vice-President. So are a number of his cohorts, cronies, allies, and surrogates vying for this or that elective post, in addition to those of his enablers who are among the six candidates for President. That glaring fact is the inescapable context in which his saying all the right things last week must be understood.

Every survey ever conducted by the country’s more reliable polling firms (some are no more than the hired hacks of certain candidates) shows that nearly 70% of Filipinos favor alliances with “other countries” — meaning mostly the United States and its Western allies — to protect Philippine rights in the WPS. Nearly 50% of them also say that his regime is not doing enough, or is actually failing, to defend those rights.

Mr. Duterte very likely departed from his usual “we can’t do anything about it” posture in the hope that the voters will forget how Chinese aggression in, and militarization of the WPS have been emboldened by his past indifference to that country’s bullying and abuse of Filipino fisherfolk and other citizens in their own fishing grounds and national waters.

To deflect attention from China’s repeated assaults on Philippine sovereignty, he has gone out of his way to thank President Xi Jinping for that country’s donations of Sinovac vaccines (the later shipments of which the taxpayers paid for); its promise of grants and loans and other assistance that have yet to materialize; and, most specially, for Xi’s pledge to help keep him in power.

Last week, however, Mr. Duterte suggested that such incidents as Nov. 16’s could have an adverse impact on the patron-client relationship between China and the Philippines his policies have created, which he insists on calling a “partnership.”

Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin, Jr., who has been filing one protest after another over China’s harassment of Filipino fisherfolk and intrusion into the EEZ, and who filed another protest over its blocking the two Philippine supply ships, echoed Mr. Duterte’s statements in his tweets.

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana meanwhile told the media that dozens of Chinese civilian and military sea craft are still in the area, and that despite assuring the government that they will not stop Philippine vessels from supplying the Ayungin Shoal Marine detachment, a Chinese coast guard team on rubber boats nevertheless followed, photographed, and videoed them in another instance of harassment.

Diplomatic protests can be ignored, and China has done exactly that over the last five years, while complaints about harassment can be even more pointedly dismissed. The Chinese government also knows that in the end it is what Mr. Duterte will do that matters and not his words, nor those of his officials. But those words could be part of a charade about which Mr. Duterte’s patron, President Xi Jinping, is likely to have assumed were merely uttered as part of his vote-getting tactics.

Only those born yesterday would dismiss that likely possibility. If there is anything Mr. Duterte and company are good at, it is, after all, at play-acting and mass deception. He pretended not to be interested in the Presidency from mid-2015 until the approach of the 2016 elections when he did run for the post. During the campaign he pledged to take a jet ski and to plant the Philippine flag in the Spratlys. Some thought he was being literal, while others interpreted that remark to mean that once elected he would defend Philippines rights and interests in the WPS. But he later called those who believed him in either sense “stupid.”

In numerous other instances Mr. Duterte has said one thing but done another, while his spokespersons and other officials either denied, modified, or “clarified” what he said. All this makes anything he says at the very least subject to a huge dose of skepticism.

The same doubts are encouraged by the regime’s protests over former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s claim that China intervened in the 2016 elections in behalf of Mr. Duterte. Its less than reliable record of forthrightness and the Duterte China policy of looking the other way that seems to be the price for that support invite legitimate fears that not only could that have happened, but that it can also happen again.

Candidate for President Panfilo Lacson and Senator Ralph Recto have in fact warned that foreign interference, which is not new in Philippine electoral politics, could influence the outcome of the 2022 elections.

While they seemed to be referring to China alone, the United States also comes to mind. The US is the record holder in the clandestine enterprise of making sure that whoever is elected to the country’s top posts would protect and help advance, or at least not oppose through their policies, its strategic and economic interests. The US in fact intervened in Philippine elections almost immediately after 1946, and over the decades since the 1950s has continued to do so.

But it is nevertheless possible for China, with its drive to be the next global hegemon, not only to have done so but also to continue to do so, given its strategic and economic interests in the WPS, in the Philippines, and in Asia as a whole.

To Filipino skepticism over Mr. Duterte’s seeming turn-around over China’s latest act of intimidation in Philippine territorial waters must thus be added the need to be especially alert over the distinct possibility that the 2022 elections will not solely be a contest among Filipinos but also another arena of contention between two of the most powerful countries on the planet.

It also demands that citizens closely monitor and evaluate the policies of whoever wins the Presidency next year so they can determine whether those policies will be to the benefit of the Philippines and its people or to that of any foreign power. The Duterte episode should be enough of a learning experience for everyone to realize that skepticism pays dividends in monitoring governance in this country of multiple, conflicting allegiances to self, family, class, and foreign patrons, and with a sorry history of betrayal by its so-called leaders.

LUIS V. TEODORO is on Facebook and Twitter (@luisteodoro).

Published in Business World
December 2, 2021

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