Could Duterte’s pursuit of closer relations with China cost him his political popularity in the Philippines?
Hanging from the footbridge of the fourteen-lane Quezon Avenue in Metro Manila on a July morning was a red banner bearing bold letters.
“Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China.”
The inspiration for this prank was a statement by no other than President Rodrigo Duterte himself. In a speech attended by the Chinese ambassador last February, Duterte joked about the Philippines becoming a province of China.
The banners were strategically placed in major thoroughfares at a sensitive time. July 12 was the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of the Philippines over the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) dispute with China.
Local officials were quick to take the banners down. Government spokesperson Harry Roque declared that it was “enemies of the government” who set up the prank.
Then this week, when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official to the Philippines, a wave of anti-China protests swept the country. Demonstrators marched to the Chinese consulate chanting slogans calling on China to “get out of our land”. A fishermen’s movement protested against Beijing’s takeover of the country’s territorial waters. And social media in the Philippines was inundated with images and memes of Winnie the Pooh – a cartoon which has been censored in China because of comparisons of President Xi to its plump bear character.
These stories of resistance, from the indignant to the playful, may give an impression of a nation averse to dealing with its powerful neighbour. One could not help but wonder whether Duterte was amiss in his calculations to pursue a pragmatic approach to China.
What, if any, are the implications of such miscalculation to Duterte’s popularity?