Who wants to be in President Duterte’s shoes?
Aside from tackling a pandemic that has only earned him brickbats internally, the man is facing a dilemma with regard to his China policy in the Philippine maritime zone.
While the coronavirus plague is keeping him and his able lieutenants busy at home, he also has to balance a tightrope act in the West Philippine Sea, now slowly becoming a bone of contention not only among countries in the region but also between superpowers China and the United States.
The Covid-19 pandemic has definitely given the Duterte administration a big headache. It has similarly become a big balancing act between the health of the citizenry and the economy, which has plummeted to catastrophic proportions in the advent of strict lockdowns considered as the longest in the world.
The man and his task force in charge of managing the government response to the pandemic had no choice. They just have to live with the fact that vaccines intended to stem the further spread of the virus are hard to come by. Rich nations have cornered most of the all-important sera for their own consumption. Poor nations like the Philippines have been left crumbs that only delayed their respective rollouts.
While Philippine and Chinese officials embroiled themselves in a verbal tussle over dozens of Chinese ships moored at the Julian Felipe Reef in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Duterte dialed down the rhetoric, saying the bilateral friendly relations with the Mainland far outweigh whatever differences we have with the Chinese.
Duterte’s pronouncements obviously did not sit well with critics, who wanted him to put up a firmer stance against what they call the Chinese aggression.
Critics, mostly from the opposition, must understand that it is not easy walking such a tightrope.
Blasting Beijing would be popular in the Philippines where many see the issue as one of China intruding on the country’s territory. Doing so, however, risks the largesse Duterte needs to deal with the Covid outbreak and pandemic-induced recessions.
As we see it, the President feels there’s a need to respond in a manner as tough as possible but without unnecessarily shaking the foundations of ties between Manila and Beijing.
Tough-talking as he is, Duterte, we feel, is also balancing the repercussions of such an act, knowing that he had turned to China for infrastructure assistance and more recently for vaccine donations. As one analyst said, he has basically defined his relationship with the Mainland with that kind of dependence.
In fact, since his election in 2016, the President has nurtured closer ties with China by putting the sensitive territorial dispute on the back burner. This gesture yielded billions of dollars of investment pledges, a flood of Chinese tourists and market access for Philippine exports, including bananas, one of our top agricultural products.
During the pandemic, China sent ventilators, personal protective equipment and yes, vaccines.
With the country wrestling with a resurgence of coronavirus infections and a record 9.6 percent economic contraction, ensuring China’s support at these critical times is crucial at least as far as Duterte is concerned.
With next year’s national elections on the horizon, Duterte needs to bring the infections under control and revive the economy fast enough to boost his chosen successor’s chances. To do this, the Chief Executive still needs Beijing’s assistance, according to observers.
This partly explains why Duterte has departed from the hawkish statements of his defense and foreign ministers against Beijing.
He has no choice. His hands are tied. But judging from his earlier statements with regard to his actions, Duterte could only be doing what he believes is best for his beloved countrymen.
“We can’t afford to go to war with China. War is not an option,” he said.
That should hush everybody up.
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