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Kingmaker Duterte risks losing political capital on China, vaccine issues

President Rodrigo R. Duterte holds a vial of Sinovac Biotech’s CoronaVac, which is part of the 600,000 doses donated by China. — COURTESY OF PRESIDENTIAL COMMUNICATIONS OPERATIONS OFFICE

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

LILY G. TERRENIO, a 41-year-old staunch supporter of President Rodrigo R. Duterte, is unsure whether she would vote for whomever he anoints in next year’s elections.

“I wanted the President to change his mind about Philippine friendship with China,” she said in a mobile phone message. “While we may have benefited from Chinese aid, their occupation of some features in the South China Sea has affected our fishermen.”

BW Bullseye 2020-focusMr. Duterte risks losing his political capital after Chinese investment pledges failed to materialize during his term, according to political analysts.

The slow progress of the administration’s infrastructure deals with China would probably affect the chances of his anointed presidential candidate to win in 2022, they said.

“I think this is the only issue where the public disagrees with the President,” Michael Henry Ll. Yusingco, a lawyer and research fellow at the Ateneo de Manila University Policy Center, said in an e-mail.

He said a number of concessions that Mr. Duterte had extended to China for capital that has yet to materialize would be a main issue in next year’s elections.

Early in his presidency, Mr. Duterte announced a foreign policy pivot toward China and away from the country’s typical allies such as the United States. Manila got about $24 billion (P1.2 trillion) in investment and loan pledges from China to boost big-ticket infrastructure projects.

Few have materialized.

Another issue that would probably get in voters’ minds is the government’s response against the coronavirus pandemic, said Maria Ela L. Atienza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines – Diliman.

“Local vaccination plans can be seen as political capital,” he said by telephone.

Out of all Southeast Asian countries, Filipinos are the most disapproving of their government’s response to the pandemic, according to a study by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Studies Centre.

Based on a survey that involved 1,032 people living in Southeast Asia, 53.7% of Filipino respondents thumbed down the government’s handling of the health crisis, making them the most dissatisfied.

“Given our young electorate, who are very active in social media, I have high hopes that the traditional politicians will be severely tested in 2022,” Mr. Yusingco said.

Antonio Gabriel M. La Viña, a lawyer and former dean of the Ateneo de Manila University School of Government, blamed the public’s hesitancy to get vaccinated to the lack of an information campaign on vaccines.

A noncommissioned poll conducted by the OCTA Research Team in December showed that only a quarter of Filipinos in Metro Manila were willing to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Almost half of the respondents were undecided, while 28% said they would not get the shot.

Mr. Duterte continues to enjoy popular support but the majority of Filipinos generally disagree with his pro-China stance, according to several public opinion polls including the Social Weather Stations (SWS).

More than 80% of Filipinos felt the government should oppose China’s military presence in the South China Sea, according to an SWS poll in 2018.

Filipinos’ trust in China fell from “poor” to “bad” with a net trust rating of -36 in July. This was the lowest since the bad -37 in April, SWS said.

Net trust in China has been positive in only nine of 53 polls since 1994. It reached as high as a moderate +17 in June 2010 and as low as -46 in September 2015, it said.

“Foreign policy, particularly our China policy, should be an election issue,” Mr. Yusingco said. “I would suggest to the opposition to make this as one of their focal arguments.”

He said the opposition must offer a clear and credible policy narrative on how the country should defend its territorial and national interests against Chinese intrusion. “Sound bytes and slogans will not be enough.”

Opposition senatorial candidates in the 2019 campaign vowed to bring the fight against China to the Senate if elected in May. Despite the opposition’s platform against the administration’s foreign policy, Mr. Duterte’s allies still swept the Senate.

Ms. Atienza said the government’s pro-China policy could be used by the opposition as an election issue next year.

“The opposition can definitely capitalize on the foreign policy performance and the economy as one facet of their campaign,” she said in an e-mail.

It might be too late for the administration to fix its bias toward China even if it started moves to strengthen the country’s claim to the disputed water, she said.

“Last year, the Philippine government appeared to be getting more articulate in sending out diplomatic protests against China’s actions in disputed territories,” Ms. Atienza said.

“However, for much of its term, the Duterte administration has established its bias toward China,” she added.

Renato C. de Castro, an international studies professor at De La Salle University, said the opposition must show how the foreign policy could affect their lives.

“Foreign policy issues will hardly matter to the public,” he said. “We have seen it in the previous administrations. These should be framed in light of domestic issues. Will this give them food?”

Terry L. Ridon, convenor of infrastructure think tank InfraWatchPH, said China’s financial promises were unlikely to materialize before Mr. Duterte’s six-year term ends in 2022.

“A big factor for the delay has been the bureaucratic red tape in securing national and local government permits and clearances for various projects,” he said.

While the government has touted recent developments in the Chinese-funded Pasig River bridges, these projects were hounded by controversies, including the issue of mostly Chinese workers being employed, he said.

He added that China might not feel pressured to deliver on the promised investments when it’s already getting concessions from the Philippines.

The government “has squandered its opportunity to truly build its golden age of infrastructure” he said. “These projects have been proposed as early as 2016. We have looked the other way on our claims in the South China Sea for economic assistance, but we have been the cause why little economic aid has been delivered.”

It is also unlikely for China to still release its promised loans amid the pandemic that has hurt its own economy, Mr. Ridon said.

“Formulating such a policy narrative will not be easy. There has to be a balance between maintaining good relations with China and making it clear to them that Filipinos will not tolerate aggressive moves in our shores,” he said.

“The opposition cannot adopt an isolationist narrative because this will go against our multilateral commitments in the region,” he added.

Mr. Yusingco said Mr. Duterte’s popularity is unlikely to diminish as his term ends.

“Whomever will be his anointed one for 2022 should not think this trust and fondness for the President carries over to them,” he said.

“They will certainly enjoy the perks of being administration candidates, but for sure, they will still be individually evaluated. They will still stand or fall on their own merits and shortcomings.”

Kurt Adrian M. Dela Peña, a millennial voter, said the country needs someone who will “assert the country’s sovereignty at all costs.”

“The country has obviously entered into unfair agreements with China, which puts our territorial integrity at stake,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat. “None of these investments can ever replace our natural resources, which we need now more than ever amid the pandemic.”

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