Jonathan Baltensperger — The recent general elections in the Philippines went widely unnoticed by Swiss media. However, a closer look on current political developments in the Philippines suggests to consider an enhanced foreign policy strategy by China, and how this affects the politics in surrounding countries.
On May 13, the Philippines held general elections. As most midterms, these elections were generally seen as a referendum on President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration and policies since 2016. There were several controversial issues to vote on: Duterte’s “War on Drugs” and his foreign policy pivot to China being two of the biggest issues. The number of “extrajudicially killed” Filipinos is estimated to be least 5’000 (official number by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency) but could as well approach 27’000 by now (estimates by human rights groups). Duterte’s cozying up to China was not well received by the majority of the public: a September 2018 survey showed an 84% disapproval rate of the government’s inaction over China’s increasing presence in the South China Sea. For example, the Duterte administration never capitalized on the former administration’s victory in the Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling, which favored the Philippines’ claim in the South China Sea and deemed China’s creation of artificial islands as inconsistent with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The May 13 elections were riddled with strange behaviors of voting machines and hints of irregularities, but ultimately resulted in a sweeping victory of Duterte-backed candidates and parties. The elections not only resulted in the daughter of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos, Imee Marcos, and daughter of Rodrigo Duterte, Sara Duterte, taking seats in the Senate, but they also made Duterte’s Philippine Democratic Party (PDP-Laban) the most powerful party in the house of representatives by winning more than one third of all seats. This is remarkable for a political party that was a negligible political force throughout the 1990s and 2000s and only gained traction in the wake of Duterte’s presidency.
A new era of foreign interventionism
To understand the current situation, it is insightful to look back on what happened over the past few years. In the run-up to the presidential elections in May 2016, it was long speculated whether Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of Davao, would run for president. On social media, however, a subtle campaign to promote Duterte’s name and his alleged achievements in his home city was well under way. Duterte’s social media campaign manager met Cambridge Analytica’s Alexander Nix in 2015. In January 2016, the Duterte campaign also received training in social media advertisements from Facebook itself.
After entering the presidential race relatively late, Duterte mentioned that his initial campaign financing came from unidentified Chinese donors. The connection between PDP-Laban and the Communist Party of China (CPC) presumably goes back to the year 2010, when PDP-Laban attended the International Conference of Asian Political Parties hosted by the CPC in Kunming, China. Since then, PDP-Laban leaders vowed to learn from the CPC and entered into an agreement to undergo “policy training” in CPC party schools on the mainland.
Beijing’s motivation for an enhanced engagement in the Philippines is obvious: the nation is not only home to 100 million people, with favorable demographics, but also geostrategically important. The one who controls the Philippines has strategic clout not only over the highly disputed South China Sea, but also on the vast maritime area between the shores of Vietnam to America’s Pacific Island of Guam. Duterte was, among all the Philippine presidential hopefuls in 2016, best suited to advance China’s foreign policy interest in the region. No other candidate had a similar track record of disregard for human rights, personified strong man ideologization and anti-Americanism as the self-described socialist. It is not that Beijing would do anything extraordinary, rather, its recent financial and organizational backing of China-friendly candidates and parties in the Philippines could as well come straight out of the United States’ foreign interference playbook. Nevertheless, the case of the current Philippines is remarkable, as the former American colony used to be a traditional US ally with a mutual defense treaty and a long history of American military bases. This development from being a clear US ally, to a popular Philippine head of state who travels to Beijing to proclaim “separation from America” and “alignment with the CPC’s ideological flow”, is rather unusual. The recent elections demonstrated that Duterte’s and PDP-Laban’s overtures to China would not take any political toll.
Since the end of World War II, Swiss diplomats became used to cope with countries that were undoubtedly influenced by America’s and Russia’s foreign policy engagement. While Russian efforts to influence elections is currently a widely discussed issue in Western media, the possibility that China might be increasingly engaged in similar activities is less considered. It might be time to change this.