They are no longer funny.

When the president and his critics are exchanging barbs with one another over the South China Sea issue, it is the enemy — China — that laughs louder.

The country must be united and face a common enemy that is violating the country’s territorial integrity and national patrimony by wantonly intruding into our exclusive economic zone.

Western imperialists used a very familiar tool to control faraway colonies in the 19th and early 20th centuries — divide and rule.

China learned the lesson from European powers, which cut up the Qing dynasty in the 19th century, humiliating the Middle Kingdom.

It is seeking to rise and avenge that unpleasant experience, and do the same to weaker states trying to resist its power grab on maritime waters in the region.

A weaker state becomes more helpless in putting up a fight when it is too divided and its people are fighting among themselves.

We Filipinos have a very long history of conflicts among ourselves, which Spain exploited to put down rebellions. The Americans used people from the northern mountain region to fight Muslims in the south.

Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo was betrayed by the Macabebe troops in Palanan, Isabela, which ended the Filipinos’ war of independence against the Americans.

During the three-year Japanese occupation, Filipino collaborators — the Makapili — helped the enemy catch guerrillas who continued the struggle against Japanese imperialism.

It is sad the Filipinos have never learned from the past and continue to allow themselves to be used by the modern-day enemy — China.

It’s a catastrophe that the modern-day Makapilis are led by no less than the leader of the Republic who submits to China without a fight, while some of his officials defend his defeatist position.

And there are so many gullible people who believe it is futile to resist a world power. They might have forgotten the heroes who had sacrificed their lives to fight for justice and freedom.

The flaw in the Filipino character is, perhaps, universal.

Netflix is streaming a popular TV series about the nomadic Turkish Islamic tribes in the 13th century who struggled to form a nation by fighting the influence of the centuries-old Christian Byzantine empire and the pagan Mongolian invaders who were setting up the world’s second largest empire at that time.

The five-season historical fiction, which ran from 2014 to 2019, revolves around Ertugrul, leader of the Kayi tribe and who became a powerful and dominant chieftain in northwestern Anatolia — modern-day Turkey. He is the father of Osman, founder of the Ottoman empire that stretches from Eastern Europe to the Middle East, Northern Africa and up to Iran.

Before winning historic battles against the weakened Byzantines and the squabbling heirs of Genghis Khan, Ertugrul defeats the traitors within his own tribe and other tribal leaders. He even finds himself having to deal with his own brothers.

Ertugrul’s story echoes the experience of other nations, including the Philippines, a very young republic that gained full independence from the United States in 1946.

Washington continues to exert influence on Philippine politics, economy and culture. Beijing has never enjoyed such influence on the country until Rodrigo Duterte came to power in the middle of 2016.

China’s influence in politics and business is evident in the policies and projects carried out by the government. Duterte’s government is also slowly introducing Chinese pop culture through the broadcast platform by showing Mandarin-language, Chinese-produced shows in state-controlled television.

This is, perhaps, an effective tool to soften strong anti-China sentiments in the Philippines because of what Beijing had done in the South China Sea.

China seized control of Scarborough Shoal, or what is locally known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc, in 2012 through deception.
China has been preventing local fishermen from getting near the fish-rich rocky outcrop and in other areas, like Recto Bank or Reed Bank near the Spratlys.

In fact, in 2019, a Chinese steel-hulled militia vessel rammed and sank the Gem-Ver II fishing boat and left 22 local fishermen floating for hours in the waters before they were rescued by Vietnamese fishermen. Hundreds of Chinese fishing and militia vessels continued to linger in the country’s exclusive economic zone, including in four of nine Philippine-occupied land features in the Spratly.

Duterte kept silent for weeks after the intrusions were reported in March, but found voice after his silence drew a lot of criticism from the public.

However, Duterte’s message was conflicting and confusing. While he gave the go-signal to send the coast guard to the disputed sea to assert the Philippines’s claims and protect national interests in the sovereign waters, his statements were less inspiring.

In one late-night meeting with select Cabinet members, he said the country should be grateful to China for donating 1 million doses of anti-Covid-19 vaccines, instead of creating trouble in the disputed maritime area.

He repeated his mantra that China has possession of the sea and it was futile to challenge it because doing so would lead to a shooting war, which the country would not win.
It was doubtful if the president really gave his approval to what his defense and foreign affairs secretaries had done in resisting China’s presence in the South China Sea.

Did Delfin Lorenzana and Teodoro Locsin Jr. act on their own? It would seem they were saving Duterte from embarrassment as the President had been unable to respond to China’s bullying.

Perhaps, they were worried Duterte’s popularity would suffer and affect the presidential elections next year, amid rising anti-China sentiments that run contrary to the president’s unflinching loyalty to Xi Jinping.

Duterte can still save himself from embarrassment and from being buried in history as a coward and disloyal leader who gave away, not only Scarborough Shoal (something he used to accuse the previous administration of), but the entire country.

It is not too late for Duterte to stand up for the country’s rights. He has started by asserting the country’s 2016 arbitral victory at The Hague in speeches before the United Nations General Assembly and at the Asean Summit last year.

But these seemed to be lip service because he was only reading prepared statements done by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

It’s about time he speaks from his heart and mind about the Philippines’s national interest in the South China Sea.

Before he was elected, there was a lot of expectation he could lead the country better than the inept, insensitive and ineffective administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

Five years later, Duterte was a failure. He never made good on the promises to end corruption, crime and drug problems. The economy tumbled and shrank, but not entirely due to the coronavirus pandemic but his flawed policies.

Even before the outbreak, the Philippine economy was on a downward swing as his “Build, Build, Build” program, which relied heavily on Chinese investments, never took off.

Five years after China pledged $24 billion in investments and aid, only two token projects to build bridges over the Pasig River were done.

Millions of jobs were given to Chinese offshore-gaming operators and construction projects. Smuggled cheap Chinese products flooded the market, bringing into the country the deadly African Swine Fever (ASF) that decimated the hog population, pushing up pork prices during the pandemic period.

Duterte can still redeem himself. He should speak with one voice with his Cabinet to challenge China. He should not fear a war with a superpower.

The country’s heroes did not buckle in the face of colonial Spain and imperialist United States at the turn of the 20th century or even against Imperial Japan in the 1940s.

The Philippines has to show unity, cohesion and solidarity to overcome the challenges. Duterte should stop petty fights with critics, and both sides should focus on a common enemy, who is winning without firing a shot.