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"China: Growing Engagement, Growing Risk" by Malcolm Cook

2019/10, 28 January 2019

The Philippines is in campaign mode for the May mid-term elections. Campaign periods bring into sharper relief points of perceived vulnerability for the incumbent government. In the past week, three points of vulnerability related to the President Duterte’s close embrace of China have come to the fore:

(1) The Senate version of the delayed 2019 budget blocks government payments for a major China-funded public surveillance program on the basis that the awarding of this contract was incorrect. Leading senators not aligned with the president have also called for a Senate inquiry into the national security implications of this project.

(2) During the Senate public services committee hearings on the award of the third telecoms license to the Mislatel consortium, leading opposition senator Franklin Drilon argued that Congress should revoke the Mislatel franchise awarded by the government late last year. The Mislatel consortium is led by Dennis Uy, a new tycoon from President Duterte’s Davao City bailiwick who was a major contributor to the president’s 2016 election campaign, and China Telecom Corp.

(3) President Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino made rare public comments raising concerns about the growing number of mainland Chinese workers in the Philippines. Presidential spokesperson Salvador Panelo then brushed aside these criticisms by arguing that mainland Chinese workers were helping fill skill gaps in the Philippine workforce. During the January 27 CNN Philippines’ election forum, leading opposition senatorial candidate Mar Roxas reiterated Aquino’s concerns to much applause. Senatorial candidates that adopted Panelo’s line were roundly booed.

Nativist electoral concerns about mainland Chinese labour immigration are not limited to the Philippines. They are an issue in the current Indonesian presidential campaign. Likewise concerns that major government contracts involving Chinese firms were incorrectly awarded featured in the last Malaysian election.

As China’s economic engagement deepens and broadens across Southeast Asia, so do the political and electoral risks for incumbent governments and involved Chinese firms.  

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.