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Duterte's critics target China relations ahead of midterm elections

Philippine president put on defensive over 'debt trap' claims and other policies

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte remains a popular figure in the country with a high approval rating, which he hopes to lend to his allies in the midterm elections in May.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's political opponents are zeroing in on his government's dealings with China ahead of his visit to Beijing next month and crucial midterm elections in May.

Fears over a "debt trap" from Chinese loans, Filipino fishermen's struggle in the disputed South China Sea and the president's ties with a Chinese businessman accused of being involved in illegal drug trade have all been brought to the fore in recent days by Duterte's critics, putting his administration on the defensive.

"The timing is that the president is due to have a state visit to Beijing next month," Manila-based political analyst Ramon Casiple said in an interview with the Nikkei Asian Review. "It may also have something to do with the elections."

More than 18,000 elective positions across the country will be contested on May 13, but the most consequential race is the Senate, where half of the 24 seats are up for grabs. A legislative chamber controlled by Duterte allies could enable the president to pursue drastic and controversial changes, such as the shift into a federal form of government, which would give greater autonomy to regions but could also imperil the country's fiscal health, critics say.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo, a lecturer in the Chinese program of the Ateneo de Manila University, said China will likely loom large in election campaigns, as seen in other countries where Beijing is increasing its presence.

"The unresolved dispute in the West Philippine Sea and concerns about China's growing influence in the country are expected to be an election issue," Pitlo said, referring to what the Philippines calls the South China Sea.

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Manila last November. Duterte next month will attend a forum in Beijing, where he is expected to firm up his country’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative.   © Reuters

Still, it remains unclear whether any of the controversies will gain enough traction to have an impact on the outcome of the elections. Duterte remains a popular figure with a high approval rating, which he hopes to lend to his allies in the midterm polls. His campaign against crime and illegal drugs, which has led to thousands of deaths, drives his strong public support despite domestic and international condemnation.

But on March 24, a fired senior police officer accused former presidential adviser Michael Yang, a Chinese citizen, of being involved in the narcotics trade. The officer, Eduardo Acierto, said his superiors did not follow up on his 2017 report on Yang.

Police and drug enforcement officials denied the claims by Acierto, who was dismissed last year for his alleged role in drug smuggling.

Despite the accusation, Casiple does not expect the president's popularity -- he has a 60% approval rating -- to take a hit. "These are all just [negative] publicity," he said. "I think he will survive, there is no doubt about it."

The president is scheduled to attend next month's Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, where he is expected to firm up the Philippines' participation in China's massive infrastructure program. His trip comes amid concerns at home that national assets are being used as collateral for loans from China.

Philippine Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, speaking at a university forum in Manila on March 22, flagged a provision in the loan agreement for the $62 million Chico River irrigation project which, according to Carpio, could allow Beijing to take over assets like the Reed Bank, a disputed area in the South China Sea that is thought to be rich in oil and gas.

"In case of default by the Philippines in repayment of the loan, China can seize, to satisfy any arbitral award in favor of China, 'patrimonial assets and assets dedicated to commercial use' of the Philippine government," Carpio was quoted by ABS-CBN News as saying.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad also recently warned Manila about becoming too indebted to Beijing.

Finance Undersecretary Bayani Agabin dismissed fears over possible default, arguing that loan payments are factored into the country's annual budget.

"The Department of Finance challenges critics to look and study the Philippines' credit history," Agabin said at a news conference this past week. "If you look at it, we've never had a history where we renege on our obligations, even during the most difficult times."

Speaking at an economic conference in Manila on Friday, Chinese Embassy Counsellor Jin Yuan slammed "Chinese debt trap" concerns as "nonsense, meaningless."

Meanwhile, the government over the past week said it would speed a process to tax foreign online casino workers in the Philippines, a move seen as addressing backlash against the country's rising number of Chinese workers. The administration has been criticized by lawmakers and others over its loose immigration policy.

When Duterte came to power in 2016, he revitalized relations with China and set aside a bitter territorial dispute in the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands to bolster control over the area. Duterte has secured around $24 billion worth of investment pledges from Beijing, but critics have pressed him to assert Manila's 2016 international tribunal victory in the maritime dispute before Chinese President Xi Jinping.

One Duterte critic, Neri Colmenares, is a Senate candidate who is keen on making the maritime dispute an election issue. Colmenares released a short video on Facebook last weekend featuring the plight of Filipino fishermen who have accused China of confiscating their catch and destroying their small boats.

The video, which has been viewed more than 270,000 times, was made public days after former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and former Ombudsman Conchita Carpio-Morales asked the International Criminal Court in The Hague to launch a probe against President Xi over reclamation in the South China Sea, which they said has resulted in "massive" environmental devastation.

The military said it has not received reports of Chinese attacking Filipino fishermen. "Politicians should not exploit sensitive national issues such as these if they are not backed by a solid foundation and proper confirmation just to suit their own benefit," Lt. Gen. Emmanuel Salamat, commander of the military's Northern Luzon Command, said in a statement on Wednesday.

Colmenares, an activist who positions himself as part of the opposition, is showing poorly in recent public opinion surveys, in which Senate candidates allied with Duterte have fared better.

But by releasing his video, he is hoping to appeal to the 84% of Filipinos -- based on a September 2018 survey by Social Weather Stations, a pollster in Manila -- who believe that it was "not right" to tolerate China's de facto control over the area.

"It's a good time to be reminded that when we talk about seemingly large, complicated issues like the West Philippine Sea dispute and China, the real people on the ground actually suffer the consequences of government decisions," Colmenares wrote on Facebook.

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