Caution: this is a political commentary, a big diversion from what is usually posted in this blog platform. Read at your own risk.
When asked what he did when he made his official visit to China, Duterte said he went there “just being nice” and “did not talk about anything except to cook siopao and chopsuey“. To a layperson, this statement may sound inconsequential, or simply, one of Duterte’s bemusing jokes. But to a political analyst who is knowledgeable on how Asians do their politics, Duterte’s statement is, in fact, politically revealing.
To just “be nice” and to talk about how “to cook siopao and chopsuey” simply means that Duterte and his Chinese counterparts focused their bilateral talk on common heritage, culture, kinship, and common goals and interests while deliberately downplaying differences, conflicts, and divisions.
This is the very essence of the so-called Asian Values approach.
Some of the key elements of Asian values — common to the nations of Southeast Asia and East Asia — include the following:
- ‘Saving face’ by not resorting to the western culture of direct confrontation.
- Negotiations based on what negotiating parties have in common (siopao and chopsuey?)
- Emphasis on cooperation over competition
- Collectivism rather than individualism
- Cultural Relativism as opposed to the European ideals of the universality of human rights.
In line with Asian values, Duterte did not confront and provoke China over an international arbitration court’s ruling that proclaimed the Philippines to be the winner in its South China Sea territorial dispute with China.
Can you blame Duterte? Can you justifiably accuse him of handing the country’s sovereignty over to China?
The hard truth is, in realpolitik, this so-called landmark “win” by the Philippines, is substantially empty. There is zero enforcement mechanism to back it. Immediately following the verdict, China issued a statement rejecting it. And Duterte, being a no-naive realist, is not blind to the raw nature of realpolitik. He knew exactly what is at stake.
So what did he do?
He went to China “just being nice and talked about cooking siopao and chopsuey” with the Chinese Communist party top guns. He came back bringing home billions of dollars worth of Chinese trade, investments, and loans.
Did Duterte do the best he could given the current political landscape wherein our next door neighbor’s economy is so huge it cannot be ignored? Wherein the Philippines, undeveloped and militarily incapable, would only appear naive and irresponsible to challenge a giant to war? And the US, a declining power with a huge deal to lose if it fights against China?
There was a saying: “If you cannot beat them, join them.”
Interestingly, further analyzing current political developments, there was this news article about Chinese coast guards in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, who, instead of chasing away the Filipino fishermen, as they used to do in the past, approached the fishermen to share their food, liquor and cigarettes. This act by the Chinese coast guards is another politically telling symbolic act, an invocation to a shared cultural value, if you will. I have the feeling that the no-nonsense Chinese leadership have specifically instructed their coast guards on how they, from now on, behave towards Filipino fishermen in the disputed shoal now that the two countries have become good ‘friends’ and ‘brothers’.
To quote from the news article:
“Following a visit to Beijing by the Philippine president, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying confirmed to the public that Beijing made“proper arrangements” regarding Scarborough Shoal after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte expressed concern about the matter.”
Among many Southeast Asian and Austronesian culture groups, historically and culturally, the sharing and partaking of food, liquor, tobacco, or betel-nut symbolizes an affirmation and confirmation of friendship and trust. In fact, in the past and even until now among some uncolonized/unwesternized ethnic groups, the practice is done to test a person or people’s willingness to trust another in friendship and brotherhood bond.
My final point is, looking at the regional political landscape, to understand Chinese politics, a clever statesman has to weigh in how the Chinese greatly appreciate invoking cultural commonality when politicking with them.
And that was exactly what Duterte did when he went to China “being nice and talked with the Chinese how to cook siopao and chopsuey”.
*Asian values was a political ideology which defined elements of society, culture and history common to the nations of Southeast and East Asia. It aimed to use commonalities, for example, the principle of collectivism, to unify people for their economic and social good and to create a pan-Asian identity. (Source -Wikipedia)
*Realpolitik – from German: real “realistic”, “practical”, or “actual”; and Politik “politics”, is politics or diplomacy based primarily on considerations of given circumstances and factors, rather than explicit ideological notions or moral and ethical premises.
*Re·al·ism – (ˈrē(ə)ˌlizəm/ noun) The attitude or practice of accepting a situation as it is and being prepared to deal with it accordingly. Synonyms: pragmatism, practicality, common sense, levelheadedness.