What have been the pre-eminent topics of late rippling across the social media timelines of the Philippines’ pre-eminent “thought leaders”? Consult various “trending” stats (filtering out all the showbiz noise that dominates Filipino social media chatter) and you will see the following words and phrases:
“south china sea”
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But then… one of these things is not like the other. You guessed it right — the “south china sea” keyword somehow made it into a list of words and phrases describing what are not just domestic problems but really low-level tabloidesque topics preferred by the Philippines’ chattering classes.
The South China Sea, on the other hand, sticks out in that it serves as the context for important events transpiring — what some call a looming “pivot” over to the Chinese sphere of influence that the Philippines is seemingly undergoing under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte. The trouble is, Filipinos’ minds are too coloured by pre-conceived notions of the Chinese. Being staunch allies of the United States, China — and Russia — are the “enemies”. It’s a legacy of the Cold War that persists to this day and that continues to frame the Philippines’ traditional foreign policy.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I’m not, saying pivoting to China is the right thing to do. For that matter, the game need not be zero-sum; i.e., relationships with the U.S. and China are not either-or propositions. It’s really about finding the sweet spot where the Philippines’ best interests lie. Indeed, to find that space in a manner that puts us on an equal footing with the U.S. and China, Filipinos need to disabuse themselves of the notion that China or America will maintain relations with their country on the basis of an altruistic agenda. That’s never gonna happen. Of course China will “primarily be interested in the Philippines’ natural resources”. That’s just business. That’s just the Chinese being, well, Chinese.
In short, Filipinos need to know who they are dealing with. And that, it seems, is where misgivings about where Duterte is taking his country seems to emanate from — fear of the unknown. University of the Philippines Chancellor and Inquirer columnist Michael Tan observes in his latest op-ed piece…
As an administrator in UP, our country’s national university, I worry that we are not training enough independent foreign policy advisers. We have allowed our views of China, if not the world, to be shaped by American and European “scholars” and journalists, many of whom do not even speak the languages of the regions they claim expertise in, or rely on “parachute visits” of a few days each time, to do their reports.
In contrast, China is watching the Philippines. I’ve seen Chinese books — not translations but original work by Chinese scholars — on various topics about the Philippines, all the way up to our Catholic churches’ architecture. And once, during a visit to China, I watched a television documentary with the most amazing details about the Japanese military and the Philippines . . . not dating to World War II but about the current situation in the West Philippine Sea.
For now, it is readily-evident that Filipinos remain an overly inward-looking people. It is the reason the country remains wretechedly poor in an age where information on how to solve most problems are just a Google search away. It’s time Filipinos step outside of their comfort zones and start facing the unknown. With courage.
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