Manila’s Mystery Red Banners

Manila woke up recently to the sight of strange red banners fluttering on footbridges around the sprawling city. They said, both in English and in Mandarin characters: “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China,” rousing anger, humor and distress in equal measure on social media.

The banners however, came at no better time than on July 12, which marked the second year of the Philippines’ decisive victory over China in an international court’s decision on maritime territories in the South China Sea.

No one knows who put the mocking tarpaulins up there, provoking demands to take them down. But one way or another, they have stimulated public notice on the most serious foreign policy issue since the Philippine Senate voted the closure of two of the largest American bases on Philippine soil about 15 years ago.

In the same morning that the signs were spotted on major roads, former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario, who was instrumental in pushing for the legal case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, told an audience of intellectuals, policymakers, and diplomats in the posh Manila Polo Club, that the Philippines has become “a willing victim” of China – which has found an equally predisposed ally in President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Philippine victory of two years ago has come to a reversal of fortune, from short-lived champion of international law to a country teetering on geopolitical rearrangements designed by China and supported by Duterte himself in his political romance with the neighboring giant across the sea. Whether government supporters or activists instigated the banners, they have seemingly snapped the public out of indifference.

The final ruling by the international court gave the Philippines the right to rocks, reefs, and islands within its Exclusive Economic Zone that China – which refused to be part of the legal proceedings – otherwise claimed was part of its nine-dash line occupying the entire South China Sea. Chinese Coast Guard personnel have recently stopped Filipino fishermen from going anywhere near the Scarborough Shoal off the western province of Zambales.

For the past two years, the span of Duterte’s chaotic presidency, Filipinos have reeled into confusion, anger, ennui and often apathy in the face of events popping out in doses – the brutal drug war, the killings of priests and local officials by unknown assailants, violence in the south, undermining the judiciary and the constitution. The external threat from China has been too distant a problem to affect the normal lives of many Filipinos now wrestling with inflation and rising unemployment.

President Duterte has said he doesn’t want to go to war against China, while embracing the economic superpower for promises of loans and investments and at the same time spurning the United States, the country’s historical partner. His popularity rating has dipped in the last quarter though staying at a fairly “good” level, showing that many of those satisfied by his policies are from the upper and middle classes, according to the pollster Social Weather Station.

But when it comes to China, Filipinos are unwilling to make a dramatic change to welcoming arms. The survey firm’s president, Mahar Mangahas, said Duterte has not been able to convince the public to trust China, perceived as the “bully” he has given in to, sacrificing sovereignty for economic benefits that many regard as dubious.

“The failure to claim our resources (in the South China Sea) eventually is going to boomerang,” Mahangas said. “How long it will take to build up, I don’t know.”

There is no easy prediction for the Philippines. cartwheeling at a pace that might lead towards sabotage through polarization or destruction of the old democratic order into a federalist form of government, or an authoritarian style to fit the president currently being drafted in the lower house of Congress, which is controlled by Duterte.

Every day, something is happening, something is being cooked up. Filipinos don’t know what might happen next, who is in the order of battle (political or not), what the president will say in his often-wild, extemporaneous speeches that have been a harbinger of things to come. Lately he’s been attacking the church by way of challenging God’s existence and calling him stupid.

Duterte may have been testing his limits, which immediately provoked outrage that however didn’t stop him from being relentless. He was crossing the line, many said in this predominantly Catholic country. It prompted the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines to release its most strongly worded statement yet on the country’s political climate, calling for a three-day fast next week.

“There are those who accused us of getting involved in political moves to destabilize the government. Nothing can be farther from the truth,” it said. “Our concern is never the establishment of earthly kingdoms. Worldly kingdoms come and go.”

Entering his third year in power, Duterte’s honeymoon period is giving way to a murkier time. Vice President Leni Robredo, previously having kept a low profile, has stepped in to offer her role in leading a scattered opposition. That produced an instant reaction from Duterte, who said she would be “incompetent” if she were to be the president – an indication of a warpath ahead.

The Supreme Court, whose majority decisions have favored Duterte’s wishes so far, may put her on shaky ground over a marathon recount of the electoral votes she won against Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of the late dictator, in the race for vice president. Duterte buried the elder Marcos in a hero’s grave, 27 years after he died in exile and disgrace.

Robredo has spoken up about the government’s cozy policy with China, saying the Philippines is facing its biggest external threat, and that “we must find solutions and we must find them fast.” She called for a “multilateral cooperation” in the region and peaceful protests at home to show how foreign policy can “affect our daily lives.”

The challenge to that speaks in the mystery over the red China banners in Manila: the public exhibition was in effect a political statement that would test the Filipinos’ understanding of sovereignty and how much they would be willing to protect it.

Criselda Yabes is a prize-winning journalist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel