China’s state-run Global Times fired a shot across the Philippine bow on Friday by reminding President Rodrigo Duterte that his country has a history of violent coups and assassinations, so he really ought to avoid destabilizing activities such as arguing with Beijing about islands in the South China Sea.
The Global Times painted a grim portrait of the situation in Manila:
Assassinations and coups have been frequent in Philippine politics in the past few decades. Now the country is going through a situation that reflects instability with several local officials assassinated and a coup attempt crushed by President Rodrigo Duterte. The Philippine president recently made remarks on television about his anti-narcotics operations and anti-corruption campaigns as well as rumors about the coup.
Duterte is one of a few political strongmen of the country since its independence. In fact, a possible coup is no news since he took office over two years ago. So it makes sense to say that he faces long-standing threats and challenges instead of temporary resistance.
Currently, this strongman is experiencing the most dangerous period since he took office. And the dangers do not come from terrorist organizations or militants in the southern Philippines, but from the country’s unique political culture.
The Chinese paper warned Duterte that he is liable to be rubbed out by a military junta in league with the Washington crime syndicate, which is not about to let the Philippines discover the joys of a loving relationship with a stable, peaceful, forward-thinking, benevolent superpower like China:
The special relationship rooted in complicated and intertwined links between the military and family-based political parties has all along been key to understanding Philippine politics. When the military’s interest is threatened, special connections of this kind are probably to become a decisive factor for future development of the country’s political situation.
In fact, some of Duterte’s policies, such as getting the Philippines estranged from its traditional ally the US while reaching out to other partners to realize all-round international cooperation in safeguarding military security, are opposed by pro-American forces in political circles. Such groups have influenced the military to push for cooperation with the US and a stronger US-Philippines alliance.
Therefore, the biggest ever crisis Duterte faces since he took office is posed jointly by the opposition and the aforesaid military forces.
Duterte claimed two weeks ago that he uncovered a coup plot hatched by an alliance of opposition leaders, former military personnel, and Maoist guerrillas. He claimed on national television that a third party intelligence service “sympathetic” to his government provided him with smoking-gun information about the plot.
The Philippine president swiftly named his nemesis Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as one of the conspirators and withdrew an amnesty granted to him after previous coup attempts in the previous decade against Duterte’s predecessors. Trillanes and his supporters denied the allegations and accused Duterte of reverting to the oppressive paranoia of the Ferdinand Marcos regime, a comparison Duterte does not necessarily take as an insult.
Trillanes maintains that the actions he and his associates undertook in 2003 were more like a demonstration and airing of grievances than a coup attempt. Government agencies and news organizations are currently fighting over documents pertaining to exactly what Trillanes admitted to when he obtained his amnesty in 2010.
China does not rely exclusively on diplomacy to press its aggressive territorial claims; it has a habit of changing the facts on the ground until accepting its view seems like the only rational course of action.
The current era of territorial disputes in the South China Sea began with the Philippines winning an international arbitration case against China, a ruling Beijing resolutely ignored and bullied other Asian powers out of acknowledging. It ends with American recon pilots marveling at “all that crazy construction” China is conducting on the islands it claims, and American admirals remarking that “China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States.” The question now is whether China will invade the Philippines itself and if it would be worth the effort.