POSTSCRIPT / August 30, 2020 / Sunday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Phl is just a mirón in US-China game

The Philippines is a minor player, actually mostly a mirón (spectator) that can afford only small side bets, but it has much to gain or lose in the big-power geopolitical game raging between its friends the United States and China.

Filipinos are also watching the US election in Novembers where President Trump enjoyed the equity of the incumbent cashing in on the pretty pre-COVID economic picture before the pandemic started to gobble up the Republican lead in the polls.

Among the things Trump is doing by the book is rallying GOP followers under the banner of making America great again. Concern that the US is being threatened by a foreign foe tends to crank up the patriotic juices of the Yankees.

Because of its overbearing presence and perceived business malpractices, China has become a convenient bogeyman, a hate object that the US could hit at will even only in the minds of patriots coming to the defense of all things American.

Trump merely has to beat the war drums and sound the alarm that America is threatened — and voters are likely to be mobilized. Americans are known to rally around their leader in times of great peril like a war, real or imaginary.

Sorry to China, but on the way to the Nov. 3 election, Trump must have his war, whether the enemy has landed on the beach or is still on the horizon. The battles in Trump’s mind or in his Twitter bursts will die down only after the polls, regardless of whether he wins or loses.

Trump is using China as a great wall to bounce his ball in pursuit of his national political agenda and his personal business goals. But the US also needs China with its 1.4-billion population as a market, creditor, investor and a co-conspirator in the game of neo-colonialism.

If Trump wins, thank you Xi, the pressure on China can be expected to ease and the mutually beneficial trade between the two giant economies normalized. Other countries – the Philippines included — that had jumped onto the US or Chinese train may then get off.

If Trump loses to his Democratic rival Joe Biden, the war that was always on the verge of erupting between the two powers separated by the vast Pacific could vanish as quickly as it had been conjured up.

In either scenarios – a Trump win or loss— small bettors like the Philippines will leave the table without meriting much attention from the big players. The game is over.

Has President Duterte placed his bets on Trump or Xi? Or is he still casting around for winning tips? Is the Philippines, known to have pushed the US away in 2017 to cozy up to China, looking for a way back to the arms of Uncle Sam?

For a hint of where Duterte may be headed – East to Washington or West to Beijing – it may not be enough to listen to what Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. is saying and with whom he has been talking.

Last week, Locsin was lashing out at Beijing as he filed another of his diplomatic protests against the China Coast Guard’s harassing and seizing the catch and gear of Filipinos casting their nets in their traditional fishing grounds west of the Zambales coast.

When the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman assailed the Philippines for, he said, meddling in China’s enforcing of its laws in its waters, he triggered a sharp retort from Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who said that China’s claim on Philippine areas exists only in its imagination.

After the US announced Wednesday its blacklisting of two dozen Chinese firms that had built up and militarized islets and reefs in Philippine maritime areas, Locsin announced he would see to the cancellation of their contracts, if any, for government projects in the Philippines.

Is Locsin going over the head of President Duterte while he is on “perpetual isolation”? Or are his outbursts against China’s encroachments cleared with the President, a professed best friend of  Xi? That intriguing point of prior clearance with the President is still not clear.

But with more than 75 percent of Filipinos having been shown in surveys to be suspicious of China’s intentions, we think they are likely to clamor for a turnaround in the administration’s accommodating attitude toward Beijing.

We found it interesting that after Locsin said he would strongly recommend the cancelation of contracts of Chinese firms involved in the building of China’s artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Malacañang took exception.

The Palace said the $4-billion contract awarded by the provincial government of Cavite to the giant China Communications Construction Co. in partnership with taipan Lucio Tan’s MacroAsia Corp. for the first phase of the Sangley Point International Airport was all right.

Questions are rife as to if Locsin, in his review of contracts of blacklisted Chinese firms, had been influenced by his conversations with Duterte and his counterpart State Secretary Michael Pompeo.

The final word from Malacañang will depend on many factors, including the 75-year-old Duterte’s state of health, Xi’s making good his many unkept promises of massive aid, grants, and investments as well as an anti-COVID vaccine for Filipinos.

Relations with the US will be affected by Trump’s win or loss in November. The Republican leader is perceived to be more friendly to the Philippines than Democratic presidents. Duterte’s improved dealings with the White House could dilute his affinity with Beijing.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of August 30, 2020)

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