ASEAN Beat | Diplomacy | Southeast Asia

China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy Backfires in the Philippines

A music video ode to “friendly neighbors across the sea” can’t patch over growing discontent with China in the Philippines.

Mong Palatino
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China’s COVID-19 Diplomacy Backfires in the Philippines
Credit: Screenshot / YouTube

The Chinese embassy in Manila released a music video dedicated to COVID-19 frontline workers, but it quickly drew widespread anger among Filipino internet users because of the song’s indirect reference to the South China Sea, known locally as the West Philippine Sea.

The music video of the song “Iisang Dagat” (One Sea) was released on April 23. The lyrics were written by Chinese Ambassador H.E. Huang Xilian and the song was performed by Chinese diplomat Xia Wenxin from the embassy and several Filipino and Chinese celebrities.

The song mentions the friendship between the two countries and their mutual cooperation in dealing with the pandemic.

“Just as the lyric goes, as friendly neighbors across the sea, China and the Philippines will continue to join hands and make every effort to overcome the COVID-19 at the earliest,” the Chinese embassy posted on Twitter.

The video begins by showing a fisher on a small boat in Manila Bay. This plus the song title made it difficult for many Filipinos not to think that Chinese diplomats were seeking to downplay the maritime dispute over the South China Sea by highlighting the supposed unity of the two governments in battling COVID-19.

The video immediately garnered a huge number of dislikes. As of this writing, it has 212,000 dislikes compared to just 3,700 likes.

An editorial by the Philippine Daily Inquirer sums up the reaction of many who heard and watched the music video: “The song’s fervent avowals to friendship, solidarity, and furthering Filipino-Chinese relations flies in the face of China’s brazen disregard and aggressive lockout of the country’s territorial rights over the West Philippine Sea.”

In fact, two days before official release of the song, the Philippine government filed a diplomatic protest against China regarding two incidents in the sea. The first referenced a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel pointing a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship in Philippine waters on February 17. And the second issue cited the naming and inclusion of Philippine territories in China’s administrative rolls.

“The Philippine government strongly protests the establishment of the so-called districts of ‘Nansha’ and ‘Xisha’ under the supposed administrative jurisdiction of its self-declared ‘Sansha City’ announced on 18 April 2020, by the People’s Republic of China,” an excerpt from the statement released by the Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs reads.

Releasing a song about friendship right after the filing of a diplomatic protest by that same neighbor was seen by many as insincere and malicious, an attempt to divert public attention to China’s aggressive behavior toward the Philippines.

Instead of promoting Chinese assistance in responding to the COVID-19 crisis, the music video reinforced public anger against the Chinese government’s building of artificial islands, installations, and structures in the Philippines’ maritime territories.

The consequence of the immense unpopularity of the embassy-produced song and video was to politicize previous goodwill gestures extended by China, such as the sending of medical supplies and other donations and the deployment of a team of Chinese experts and doctors to share expertise with their counterparts in the Philippines. Chinese aid is now viewed not just with suspicion, but also with contempt.

A senator even proposed that China should shoulder the Philippines’ COVID-19 expenses as payment for the destruction of marine resources in the South China Sea.

It didn’t help China’s case that some of the recent business activities of its citizens in the Philippines have gained notoriety. A Chinese-owned mining operation in Eastern Samar province continued operating despite community resistance amid the COVID-19 lockdown. In addition to this, the nonstop expansion of Philippine Offshore Gaming Operators (POGO) continues to be controversial because of reports that the industry provides minimal economic benefits to the country, despite the impression that the sector enjoys preferential treatment from the Duterte government. In various news reports, the industry is consistently linked to corruption, organized crime, and labor abuses. A majority of POGO workers in the Philippines are from mainland China since the industry caters to Chinese online gamers.

There has been a noticeable surge of anti-China sentiment as the country is reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic. But unlike in other countries, where this reaction is infected with racism and Sinophobia, in the Philippines it is ultimately related to the popular perception that China is using the COVID-19 crisis to undermine the sovereignty of the Philippines in the South China Sea. It will take more than a song to convince many Filipinos that President Rodrigo Duterte’s friendship with China and Xi Jinping will benefit the country’s interest, or that China has nothing but good intentions as it continues to expand its presence in the South China Sea.