The ‘China Syndrome’ infecting the Philippines

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Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) gestures to his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on April 25. Kenzaburo FUKUHARA/AFP

No, not the ‘China Syndrome’ made famous by the 1979 movie of the same title, based on the premise that if a nuclear meltdown takes place, it could potentially melt through all the way down to the other side of the earth.

There’s an altogether different one, mentioned here and there in light of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s refusal to make a big deal about the recent misfortune of some fisherfolk in the West Philippine Sea – what, exactly, does China have on the president to make him so obliging towards Beijing?

Ever since a Beijing Capital Airlines Gulfstream jet materialised in Davao on April 12, 2016, departing on April 17, there has been active speculation in that regard.

But I hardly think any type of squeeze play has to be involved – though there is something to be said for the speculation that Beijing extends to Duterte the same kind of medical benefits Cambodia’s late King Father Norodom Sihanouk availed of for decades (indeed, he would die in a Beijing hospital in 2012).

Back in 2005, on the sidelines of a conference in Washington, a Chinese Filipino from Zamboanga told me that China was very popular in his southern part of the country, while America was not.

The reason, he said, was simple.

“When the US ambassador comes to visit, he travels in an armoured Humvee and it’s like a foreign invasion,” he explained.

“When the Chinese ambassador visits, he travels around without a huge escort and he always makes a point of giving a gift of a motorcycle or two to a local Chinese Filipino group.”

Duterte has been candid about this difference too.

According to him, when the Americans invite you for a meeting, they merely give you a cup of coffee and a doughnut. But the Chinese! Ah, when they welcome you, they really welcome you – they lay out a wreath.

Henry Kissinger once pointed out that instead of the more usually used term “Middle Kingdom” to translate China’s view of its role in the world, a more accurate translation would be “Central Country”, to properly describe how China views its civilisation and nationhood.

Aside from the British, the French and the Americans (among democracies), and the Russians, the Chinese know how to combine official hospitality with carefully calculated gradations of pomp to remind visitors of their place in the pecking order of things.

So when President Benigno Aquino went to Beijing on a state visit, he got, for his troubles, the super-budget-econo-version of a state visit, with ceremonies conducted indoors in a Great Hall of the People function room.

In contrast, when President Duterte went, he got the full package, complete with ceremonies outdoors and a large military contingent.

Only the Japanese, with their professional familiarity with Davao dating to the pre-war years, and their assiduous study of Philippine society, have been able to match Beijing when it comes to the diplomatic wooing of Duterte.

(However hard they try, the Americans are always playing catch-up, not least because Washington is in shambles, but also because Duterte hasn’t been shy about his antipathy for America – it makes him impervious to the glittering allure of a Washington visit, for example).

Three years into Duterte’s term, it surprises me no end how people still keep insisting they can make the president do what he doesn’t want to do, or that he will, after having appointed people to office, take their advice on top issues when he has never been shy about being an old dog immune to learning any new tricks.

After all, he became top dog because of his old tricks.

The same applies to the hard-headed attitude of observers and some insiders alike, that somehow, the predilection of Duterte for Beijing would ever substantially change.

To be sure, like any other politician, the president can zigzag – it is, politically speaking, the straightest path between two points.

A case in point is the story told of how Beijing and not Tokyo became the first major capital Duterte decided to visit.

In the mad scramble for influence, Tokyo originally won out.

The then Secretary of Foreign Affairs Perfecto Yasay then went on a trip to Washington, and the Chinese ambassador did what is called an end run – he approached the chief presidential legal counsel and got face time with Duterte.

It was then suddenly announced that Beijing would be the first major destination of the Philippine leader.

That sort of direct access, which every diplomat anywhere craves, has been enjoyed by China ever since.

It means that whatever whoever happens to be secretary of foreign affairs says, Duterte can easily be convinced to countermand, if necessary.

The clincher can be found in the Philippine Centre for Investigative Journalism’s exploration of the Duterte’s business affairs.

He has no American or European business associates of any kind. Philippine Daily Inquirer