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New World Order: South China Sea, Final Part

The economic reality of post-pandemic world order will be tied closely to China and Covid-19 will not greatly reduce global reliance on China. This is a key concept that needs to be brought home for whoever wins the Philippine presidential elections in 2022 as they consider their own political strategies. There will be a global recession and the United States will not be of great help to the Philippines because of its own economic issues - regardless who wins the U.S. presidential elections this year.

While China’s militarization and aggressive posturing in the South China Sea is a burning issue that burns the soul of many Filipinos, the hard reality of the new world order is that China will get to keep its artificial and man-made features on these islands unmolested. Whether through lack of political will on the part of Philippine officials or as an accepted part of Duterte’s foreign policy, the voters will have to weigh in whether their priorities post-covid era stumps this issue in favor of economic deliverance.

Many Filipinos opposing the president fears that the Philippines will become a province of China if Duterte stays in power. President Duterte after all, has not been coy about the benefits of being China’s new province. This is a good soundbite to demonize “treasonous” Duterte but in reality, the opposition is making hay out of nothing because for that to happen, majority of Filipinos must convincingly agree in a national plebiscite. Being the 51st state of the United States was a more powerful argument back in the late 1950’s but it never materialized.

China has contributed $2 billion dollars to a global effort driven by Europeans, to find a Covid-19 vaccine. The U.S. is doing it alone and did not contribute a dime. China, albeit with its own agenda, is promoting global efforts through the World Health Organization while the U.S. is withdrawing support and threatening to cancel its membership. China as a global supplier of garments, high tech electronics, machinery, and equipment is committed to globalization while the U.S. continues to turn inward and promote more domestic investment.

Globalization and China’s deeper integration to the global economy will have to be factored in by Philippine policymakers as emerging economies compete for prized trade, investment, tourism and growth opportunities that China can offer. Yes, the South China Sea issue is an important one but it will have to take a back seat for the post-covid economic recovery.

The Philippines will be severely impacted by China’s actions in the post-covid era as it battles its own economic issues related to the pandemic and how it responds to Trump’s trade war strategies in aid of reelection. As Trump turns the trade war screws tighter, China will respond in kind that will affect other economies. Hong Kong and Taiwan will become battle grounds as China asserts its efforts to reunite these countries with the motherland. Hong Kong’s special status as Asia’s financial hub can suffer if the U.S. pushes through with its threat to withdraw support to Hong Kong.

If that happens, American companies operating in Hong Kong will leave and could send Filipino OFWs home. Taiwan is a big supplier of smartphone chips and other uses that China sells to the United States. Trump is wooing a big Taiwanese chip company to move to Arizona and it is already in the process. Taiwan provides major support to China’s 5G technology and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and move to the U.S. will most be likely opposed – thus annexing Taiwan becomes an option. Furthermore, as the U.S. is the putting a squeeze on Huawei for 5G supremacy, life and the economy in Taiwan could become ugly and will reverberate in the Philippines.

Politically speaking, Duterte will continue to steer the country towards economic renaissance with the help of China. Because of such approach, the opposition will rally its support from the Left, hardliners from the Right, and will be banking on the oligarchs to ride the South China Sea militarization as a sovereignty issue and a threat to democracy in the Philippines. They will use China’s repressive suppression of freedoms in Hong Kong or Taiwan as exhibits to connect the Duterte administration to such authoritarian rule.

That’s where the opposition will falter politically. First, events in the past few years has established the opposition’s alliance with the Left (Leftist groups, partylist politicians, and by extension, the New People’s Army) and the Right (with former Sen. Trillanes as the poster boy). Second, the COVID-19 response by the Duterte administration has been severely criticized by the opposition in every turn. And third, there is no guarantee that the oligarchs will go full-throttle with the opposition.

Filipino voters in general, do not like the New People’s Army (NPA). By going after leftist groups, the Duterte administration is exposing such nexus to remind voters of the opposition’s alliance with them. Duterte is demonizing the NPA leader, Joma Sison to remind a generation of Filipinos that Sison was an enemy of the state that former Cory Aquino released.

Trillanes has been accused of treason for losing the Bajo de Masinloc and that the former senator’s chivalry in the South China Sea had the blessing of former president Benigno Aquino III. Duterte also accused Trillanes and other opposition including VP Robredo of sedition related to coup attempts that many believed were the handiwork of Trillanes.

Duterte’s handling of the pandemic may not be the best but he got many things right that mattered. He got science, economic, and law enforcement experts to help him navigate such perilous times. By unleashing government assistance in the trillions of pesos, blunted the opposition’s criticism of the government’s slow response. Law enforcement brutal approach at times, made recalcitrant Filipinos see the light.

The South China Sea issue can become a lightning rod during the next presidential campaign as Chinese intervention in the Philippine economic recovery (POGO, tourism, export/import, investment, loans, etc) become more pronounced especially when the oligarchs become part of the power play. But Duterte’s political strategy is already in place as he went after Maynilad, Manila Water, and ABS-CBN with a hammer. Duterte’s intimidation has worked. ABS-CBN is still in the wind but the message fired across the bow has been received clearly - that the times of unruly democracy in the Philippines long dominated by liberal oligarchs is over. The choice is clear: Hide behind the veil of democracy to continue the opposition or welcome a new era where Filipinos can have a bigger share of the nation’s patrimony.

Exposing the impotence of democracy (as Trump is also doing in the United States) clearly puts Duterte in the driver seat as he makes the case that his crusade is not just about the rule of law or press freedom but far more important for the future of the country. By disrupting the status quo, Duterte has accomplished something that no president has ever done aside from Ferdinand Marcos.

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