Strongman's opponents must turn out in force in polls to safeguard political stability, sovereignty and economic growth
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte shakes hands with China's Premier Li Keqiang before their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on April 25. Duterte was one of 37 national leaders who converged on Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum on that day. (Photo by Parker Song/AFP)
The Philippines is heading to the polls on May 13 in what could be seen as a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte’s ill-fated decision to steer the country away from its traditional ally, the United States, and towards an alliance with the People’s Republic of China. Increased human rights abuses, allegations of corruption, inflation, and joblessness have also plagued the Duterte administration.
While Duterte himself is not standing for election, pro-Duterte control of the Senate will be decided, with major repercussions on legal questions such as Duterte's preference for more federalism. Such federalism, in an already disaggregated nation of 7,641 islands, could make it easier for China to corrupt local officials and cheaply extract natural resources.
Duterte’s government has moved closer to China than any in Philippine history. He literally cursed U.S. president, Barack Obama, in 2016, calling him a “son of a whore,” and told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the Philippines was switching its allegiance to China. In 2018, he joked to an audience that included Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua, “if you want, just make us a province, like Fujian.”
More recently on April 26, Duterte signed 19 business agreements worth US$12 billion at China’s Belt and Road Forum. He promised at the forum, which is meant to facilitate global economic and political integration with China in the lead, to open the Philippines to easier business relations with the Asian powerhouse.
As part of that, Beijing is seeking joint border, tax and macroeconomic policies in Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) countries, which would erode their sovereignty over time and increase China’s power.
Less than a week before the forum began, Duterte’s foreign affairs secretary said the Philippines would not seek remuneration from China for its fishermen’s damage to coral and clams on Scarborough Shoal that are near the Philippines in the South China Sea. Contrary to campaign promises to defend Philippine claims in the South China Sea, Duterte has shown great flexibility towards China.
Anti-China protesters raise placards with a portrait of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, kissing a boot imprinted with the Chinese flag, during a protest in front of the Chinese consular office in the financial district of Manila on April 9. (Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP)
Issue of heritage
Duterte and other close members of his cabinet may have been targeted by China with arguments of joint Chinese heritage. Or, some of the cabinet may be seeking to use Chinese heritage to appeal to China in negotiations. During a 2016 visit to China, not long after he came to office, a local television station aired an interview with Duterte, in which he self-identified as Chinese while affirming his sincerity in accommodating China in maritime conflicts.
In 2017, according to Duterte, China’s President Xi Jinping threatened war against the Philippines over the South China Sea dispute. Meanwhile the Duterte administration has sought to downplay security concerns about China’s telecommunications exports.
Among the complaints that opposition candidates have against Duterte’s links with China is how there are between 100,000 and 250,000 Chinese nationals working in the Philippines taking Filipino jobs. Many of these workers may come from Macao, where Xi Jinping is pushing them out in a bid to clean up drug and gambling crime.
There is a group of opposition candidates to Duterte, including those that are part of the Otso Diretso (direct eight) list, but a large turnout will be required for them to win.
Opposition candidates are especially hoping that the youth and religious vote will show support. Leaders of the Catholic Church, which Duterte has singled out for abuse, have subtly supported the opposition due to Duterte’s alleged corruption, policy of extrajudicial killings and closer relations with China.
In the lead up to the election, opposition supporters are concerned that China will use hackers, social media campaigns and campaign funding to sway the election.
The Otso Diretso campaign has comparatively few funds for local organizing, polling, campaign rallies and advertising.
Duterte loyalists have already taken control of the House through what Professor Mark R. Thompson, director of the Southeast Asia Research Centre at the City University of Hong Kong, calls “pork barrel distribution-driven defections.”
Duterte has jailed and otherwise legally harassed several prominent critics, including Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes, and publisher Maria Ressa. Duterte removed Supreme Court Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno in a questionable judicial maneuver. By the end of 2019, he will have appointed 12 of the 15 justices.
Chinese President Xi Jinping signs the guest book as Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte and his daughter Sarah Duterte look on at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on Nov. 20, 2018. (Photo by Mark R. Cristino/AFP)
Many everyday Filipinos believe the president, his family and his friends are reportedly influenced by China-linked funding, some of which can come in the form of large infrastructure loans, campaign donations, kickbacks, consulting fees, drug deals, online casinos and quid pro quo contracts.
“The old-aged officials get the finder's fee, the kickbacks," said Sannie Evan Malala, a farmer in the Philippines, on Facebook. "But after 10 years and more, when they will be gone, we, the younger generation, will surely be burdened through our taxes to pay for their debts.”
Even some Filipinos living abroad are concerned.
In 2018, Filipino-Americans held coordinated protests against China in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Vancouver.
“Duterte’s government pursues the 'sell, sell, sell' approach to sovereignty as a trade-off to all kickbacks he’ll get from the 'build, build, build' economic push of China,” said Ago Pedalizo, one of the protesters.
The Filipino American Human Rights Advocates said Duterte's China links threaten Philippine sovereignty. “Duterte is beholden to a US$15 billion loan with a monstrous interest rate and China’s investments in Boracay and Marawi at the expense of Philippine sovereignty. This is not to mention that China remains the premier supplier of illegal drugs to the country," the group said at a California protest in July.
Paolo Duterte, the president's son who is running for a seat in Congress, had to again recently deny claims that he had links to a US$125 million shipment of illegal drugs from China.
An anti-China protester raises a placard with a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping during a protest in front of the Chinese consular office in the financial district of Manila on April 9. Protesters descended on the Chinese consulate in Manila to oppose the Asian superpower's growing sway in the Philippines and as tensions rise over Beijing's presence in the disputed South China Sea. (Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP)
A Manila-based expert on elite networks in the Philippines told me in 2018 that Chinese intelligence services focus on elite Chinese networks when they attempt to infiltrate the country.
He claimed that some Chinese business networks in the Philippines both trade in illegal drugs and serve an intelligence function. China currently has “unprecedented access” to Duterte, the expert said.
He implied that a likely source of Chinese influence in the Philippine government is the influential special assistant to the president, Bong Go.
Go’s father’s company has won approximately $14.5 million in government contracts from 2016 to 2017 according to the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ). The contracts were awarded for the Davao region of Mindanao, where Duterte was previously mayor and his daughter Sara Duterte-Carpio is now mayor. She is a likely presidential candidate in 2022.
Between 2016 and 2017, the national government more than doubled its infrastructure expenditures in Davao to $850 million. Approximately $470 million of the contracted work in Davao has been paid for but was not completed in 2017, including some of the work by the two companies associated with Go’s family.
The company of Go’s half-brother has obtained another $52 million in government contracts. Go has denied using his proximity to Duterte to win contracts for his family. Duterte supports Go’s run for a Senate seat in the 2019 elections.
When asked about Duterte’s alleged corruption by China, another expert, who asked to remain anonymous, said that Duterte has been given money by Chinese nationals as early as when he was mayor of Davao City, Mindanao, most recently from June 30, 2010 to June 30, 2013.
"The Chinese will not give it to him directly, but through the Filipino Chinese,” he said.
Duterte’s relationship with Chinese national, Michael Yang, has also raised eyebrows. According to media reports, Yang operated businesses in Davao City, when Duterte was serving as mayor. Palace contracts show that 41-year-old Yang was hired in 2018 as economic adviser to the president, which Duterte denied.
Yang, who was reportedly present during Duterte's first visit to China in 2016, was accused in March by a police official of being involved in the illegal drug trade and was reportedly seen in closed door meetings with Duterte and Chinese officials at the April Belt and Road Forum. Palace officials denied that Yang was involved in the drug trade or seen at the forum.
Despite all the controversy, the elections could hand Duterte a major win on issues of executive power, federalism, extrajudicial killings and public acceptance of corruption and influence from China.
Twelve members of the Senate and 297 members of the House will be elected. If a significant number of Senate members are part of Duterte’s Philippine Democratic Party (PDP-Laban), new laws could be pushed through that will facilitate greater executive powers and the continued erosion of Philippine sovereignty for the benefit of China.
Political stability, sovereignty and economic growth in the Philippines can only be protected if those who support the opposition, and their friends, turn out to vote.
Anders Corr holds a Ph.D. in government from Harvard University and has worked for U.S. military intelligence as a civilian. He frequently appears in the media, including Bloomberg, 'Financial Times,' 'New York Times' and 'Forbes'.
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