Will we be the West’s ‘tank man’ vs China?

Rigoberto D. Tiglao

I CERTAINLY hope we won’t, or President Duterte’s term will see an economic downturn, a year or so after what this overexcited Solicitor General Jose Calida called the country’s “crowning glory,” our victory in the UNCLOS case we filed against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. It’s a real possibility, though, that Calida’s crown of glory could be our crown of thorns.

Remember the “tank man” during the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989? He was the man carrying what looked like a small plastic grocery bag, who stepped in front of a column of People’s Liberation Army tanks, trying to stop them on the way to the square to crush the “democracy” demonstrators there who had been convinced that they were on the way to replicating our 1986 “People Power Revolution.”

The photo of the bold man in front of the tank column became an iconic image of the noble, heroic resistance not only of the youth against Chinese dictatorship, but of democracy movements all over the world. However, and sadly, the Chinese Communist Party didn’t follow the Marcos playbook, and instead very violently crushed the “democracy movement.” According to non-Chinese estimates, a thousand young protesters were killed and another thousand imprisoned, rotting in dingy prisons to this day.

The world of course was outraged, with the European Economic Community suspending even its official development loans, and the US stopping its military sales and high-level contacts with China. Pundits predicted China will be the world’s pariah, and investors will be shunning it.

What happened was the opposite. It was in 1991, when the memory of the Tiananmen massacre started to fade, that China’s economy started to zoom, at a phenomenal 9 percent GDP growth so that in the 10 years after Tiananmen, its average GDP growth was an amazing 10 percent (ours was a pathetic 3 percent). That was the start of China’s emergence as an economic superpower. American, European, and Japanese investors flocked to China, evading a country that had won its People Power Revolution—us.

What happened to the poor “tank man”? Actually, a soldier simply got out of his tank and shoved him aside, and the column rumbled on to the square. The foreign press, which had cheered him, got tired of him. Nobody even knows his name, or determined with certainty whether he was imprisoned, still in prison, or executed. He was most probably killed—maybe even with his family—as he would have come out publicly now to claim his right to be recognized as democracy’s hero. That’s the harsh reality of this unfair world.

Deja vu
It was Jose Santiago (“Chito”) Sta. Romana, who lived and worked in China for 30 years, with his last job as ABC Beijing Bureau Chief, who saw a deja vu between the global demand for China to comply with the PAC’s recent award on the South China Sea dispute and the international outrage against the country over the Tiananmen Square massacre. “China will not buckle under international pressure, as it didn’t in 1989,” he said in a television interview.

I agree with him, and despite our own legal experts’ certainty that the PAC conclusions are incontrovertible, China could raise a lot of arguments against these, foremost I think involves the issue on how arbitration—which is in the very name of the body—could involve a party that is not willing to be arbitrated.

The West, especially the US, has been ecstatic over the award, as its declaration that China’s “nine-dash line is nonsense, is a colossal propaganda weapon against the emerging superpower, especially against its activities in the region where the US or any European nation really has no business in being involved. Their message: “Trust us, not China which a world body has concluded is illegally expanding its territory in the South China Sea.”

How I wish the other richer claimants—like Taiwan, Brunei, and even Malaysia—had leaders like President Aquino, who could easily be led by the nose by the US, so they would have instead filed the case against China, instead of us.

Taiwan, after all, is already considered by China as  its illegal breakaway territory,  while tiny Brunei Darussalam and hi-tech Malaysia are rich nations, with their GDP per capita at $36,600 and $9,800, respectively, making us with our $2,900 GDP per capita look like paupers.

But no. It was this pauper that took on China, spending at least $30 million for its case at the PCA, and whose “netizens” are now calling for a trade boycott against the economic superpower. Boycott?

Right, but here are the realities in 2014, not 2000.

Accounting for just 5 percent of our imports in 2000, China (including Hong Kong) in 2014 accounts for 18 percent of our shipments from the world. Japan and the US’s shares, which in 2000 each accounted for 17 percent of our imports, are now down to 8 percent each.

And what’s the share (in 2014) of Chinese (including Hong Kong) imports from the Philippines? Some 1.1 percent. And the share of Chinese exports to the Philippines to its total exports? Some 0.94 percent.

If the meaning of those figures aren’t clear yet, let me put it this way. If some crazy Chinese Communist Party leader manages to get his government to just declare, let’s just forget about this troublesome Philippines, the Chinese economy won’t likely miss us, as its trade with us is just 1 percent of their total trade.

In our case, though, we’ll have a lot of empty shelves in our supermarkets, and certain industries will be starved of their raw materials as 18 percent of these come from China, including 99- percent likely the cell phone you use to post those anti-Chinese memes on Facebook.

Duterte has his work cut out from him, because his stupid predecessor decided to be America’s “tank man.” He should fire Calida with his public gloating over the award, as his statements would be interpreted as the official government position. Duterte should plan how to prevent the country from being the West’s “tank man.”