Some rabid supporters of Rodrigo Duterte, who are now critics of the sitting president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., have been warning of a major confrontation with China.
They were warning that there could be war with a far superior neighbor and that they relish the idea that the Philippines’s naval forces would be destroyed and that the United States would not help its closest ally in the Indo-Pacific.
This is the narrative the former president has been selling to the Filipino public to justify his pro-China foreign policy.
Duterte even tried to scrap the 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States but, in the end, decided to retain it at the risk of a major military uprising that could topple him from power.
China has a different narrative. It portrays the Philippines as a lackey of the United States willing to fight a proxy war.
It has blamed Washington for encouraging Manila’s belligerent position in the South China Sea.
Duterte’s rabid supporters quickly jumped on China’s narrative, criticizing Marcos’ pro-US foreign policy.
The latest sea incidents near Ayungin Shoal where a small indigenous boat commissioned by the military to bring supplies to troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre, a rusting naval transport stuck on the shoal since 1999, was struck by a large, steel-hulled Chinese Coast Guard vessel.
On the other hand, a 44-meter Philippine Coast Guard vessel, BRP Cabre, had a collision with a large Chinese militia vessel with a reinforced steel hull.
The incidents showed a disturbing escalation of China’s illegal and coercive activities in the West Philippine Sea.
From shadowing and blocking, laser pointing, and water-cannon firing, the Chinese Coast Guard and militia vessels have started ramming into small Philippine boats – a clear David and Goliath scenario.
China had also tried to hijack the narrative, blaming the indigenous boat for crossing the Chinese Coast Guard vessel.
Thus, China made it appear it was a deliberate attempt by the Philippines to play the victim in the incident when it provoked a stationary vessel.
It even showed a video from China’s perspective because a more comprehensive video taken from above, probably from a high-flying drone or a surveillance plane, showed the Chinese Coast Guard vessel turning into the path of the indigenous boat.
However, pro-China social media influencers, and vloggers, and pseudo-security analysts quickly parroted the Chinese propaganda.
These people were helping China change the narrative by spreading disinformation, and confusing ordinary Filipinos who surfed the internet and read and watch social media posts.
The maritime dispute over reefs and shoals has moved from physical coercion into the information space.
China realized it was losing in the global opinion as close allies of the United States – Australia, Canada, the European Union, France, Japan, South Korea, and the United Kingdom – had joined in condemning China’s actions in the disputed sea.
No country supported China as some Southeast Asian nations – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam – are also opposed to China’s aggressive and irresponsible behavior in the South China Sea.
Sadly, only Filipinos who are rabid Duterte supporters have been supporting the Chinese narrative.
Vice President Sara Duterte-Carpio, who swore allegiance to the Philippine Constitution and Flag, is conspicuously silent on the West Philippine Sea issue.
She instead continued on her charm offensive to win back the people’s trust and support after the disastrous confidential and intelligence funds issue.
Sara Duterte has yet to fully explain where and how she spent her 2022 confidential funds of 125 million pesos in only 11 days.
Her explanation for the 650 million confidential and intelligence funds for 2024 was also vague.
There were speculations Sara would funnel her 2024 CIF to her political machinery for the 2028 presidential elections.
One of her father’s closest political advisers has started working to organize a nationwide grassroots organization for her presidential run.
It would be better for Sara to speak out against China’s aggression and illegal activities within the country’s 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
She could regain her trust if she condemned China’s activities in the West Philippine Sea.
The longer she remains silent on the issue, the deeper she digs into her hole.
She should realize that opinion polls show most Filipinos are anti-China on the West Philippine Sea issue.
She cannot just rely on her father’s popularity in the 2028 elections because the former president is also fast losing support.
The recent opinion polls where her trust and approval ratings declined by two digits before the CIF controversy showed Sara was different from her father.
The pro-China narratives being mouthed by her father’s supporters are also not helping her.
The 2028 presidential elections are lightyears away, but Sara’s chances could rise and sink depending on her choice to support China’s activities.
This early, the information war has started on two fronts – on China’s West Philippine Sea activities and Sara’s political fortunes.
The two issues are closely related because of the father and daughter’s love of China.