"Anger at Chinese incursions into our territory should not be seen as a pro-Washington stance."
Should a person do business with a company that helps a third party encroach on his or her property? If a farmer found that on the fringes of his property, a neighbor had built a wall to lay claim to land that was not his, would it make sense for the farmer to do business with the company that built that wall?
The answers to these questions seem self-evident. Yet, there is still disagreement when applied to our foreign policy.
The neighbor in question, of course, is China, our giant neighbor to the north, and the property in question are areas of the West Philippine Sea that clearly belong to us. We are not the only ones saying this. The Permanent Court of Arbitration, a United Nations tribunal, said as much in 2016.
In that landmark decision, the tribunal clearly stated that China had violated Philippine sovereign rights.
“Having found that certain areas are within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines, the tribunal found that China had violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone by (a) interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, (b) constructing artificial islands and (c) failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone,” the tribunal statement said.
“The tribunal further held that Chinese law enforcement vessels had unlawfully created a serious risk of collision when they physically obstructed Philippine vessels,” it said.
President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to power shortly before the decision was released, has chosen to shelve the tribunal’s decision in favor of friendlier ties to—and more investments from—China. He said this pivot toward Beijing was a part of his new “independent” foreign policy that moved the Philippines out of its diplomatic lockstep with Washington.
But how has this “independence” paid off for Filipinos? Chinese investments have most prominently been in real estate and online gambling, neither of which has benefited low-income or middle-class Filipinos.
For example, Chinese real estate investments have taken away office spaces from the business process outsourcing or BPO sector, which took 65 percent of office space in Manila in 2016. When Chinese investors started buying up these spaces the following year, the BPO share shrank to 39 percent.
Unlike BPOs, which provide jobs to the English-speaking Filipino workforce, the Chinese online gambling companies do not generate the same kind of employment for Filipinos. These companies import Mandarin-speaking Chinese back-office workers to cater to offshore Chinese clientele. Some Filipino women find employment hosting gambling tables and Filipino companies also provide third-party cleaning or other maintenance service to these offices, but that’s about it. As of March this year, some 80 percent of workers in these online gambling outfits were Chinese nationals.
In the meantime, the Chinese have continued to encroach on territories that we own, building artificial islands and installing surface-to-air missiles on them, breaking their own commitment not to militarize the South China Sea.
Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin now recommends that we cancel contracts with Chinese companies that have helped in this buildup. It is a reasonable suggestion, and one that has won over some members of Congress.
Still, others say this goes against the President’s stated independent foreign policy and accuse Locsin of being in bed with the Americans. One pro-administration senator has, in fact, urged caution, saying we should “just put up with China’s activities for now until we have other solutions.”
But anger at Chinese incursions into our territory should not be seen as a pro-Washington stance, simply because the occupant of the White House happens to be at odds with Beijing. To paint with this “amboy” brush is an intellectually lazy way to dismiss the valid arguments that Locsin brings to the table. Being “independent” should never come to mean “spineless.”