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The President’s Achilles’ Heel?

July 13, 2019 - Saturday 4:07 AM by E.R. Nartatez

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In Greek mythology, the child Achilles was dipped by his sea-nymph mother Thetis in the River Styx, a river marking the divide between Earth and the Underworld. The River Styx was also a goddess, its waters holding magical powers. Immersed in the River Styx made Achilles invincible; well, almost but not quite. Thetis held Achilles in one of his heels as she dipped him in the river, failing to immerse that part of his body. That heel is Achilles’ only vulnerable part.

In the heat of the Trojan War, Paris, son of King Priam of Troy, shot an arrow hitting Achilles’ vulnerable heel, leading to his death. Hence, we now call someone’s weak, vulnerable spot an ‘Achilles’ heel.’

His political opponents have used anything and everything—every trick in the book, and then some—to bring the President down. Yet despite the left and right controversy the President is facing, the latest surveys still register an ‘excellent’ approval rating.

The President does not appear to be intimidated to take on all comers. When he is convinced that something needs to be done for the best of the country, come hell or high water, he will do it! However, in the eyes of many—even among his ardent supporters—the President does have an Achilles’ heel: CHINA, that great behemoth! 

A month after WW2 broke out, Sir Winston Churchill characterized Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." Today, that description seem more apt to describe China. At the moment, China seems to be both an unstoppable force and an immovable object in terms of both economic and military power vis a vis the Philippines. But it’s not just Duterte that’s struggling to deal with China, the entire Western world can’t seem to put a handle on this untamed giant! This leviathan seems to only play its own game, by its own rules, in its own terms—the rest of the world be damned! Trump seems to see no other way to deal with China but to clash with it head on—at least economically. The US can afford it. But the Philippines?

What makes China so different? So difficult to comprehend?

China’s worldview is radically different from that of the West. It has modernized, but somehow resisted Western style modernity. Western civilization, as historically manifested by Europe and outstandingly today by the United States, is universalistic in its vision. The West externalizes itself and exports its vision of democratic values to the rest of the world, westernizing every place it touches. The mission is to convert the rest of the world with its gospel of global freedom and democracy.

As Harold French has put it, the “Western form of global universality was based… on the presumed equality (at least legally and theoretically) of clearly defined nations, on a raft of Judeo-Christian ideas and institutions, on spreading principles of electoral democracy, on open trade… and finally on a fast-emerging regime of international law. Underwriting all of these fine-sounding notions was, of course, Western and, in the twentieth century above all, American power.”

Even communism—ideological enemy of the West—as expressed by the now defunct USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republic), was also universalistic; with a mission to convert the entire world to embrace its Marxist utopian gospel. During the “cold war” both competed to transform the world into its image, almost plunging the earth into nuclear annihilation! One was bound to give; the USSR folded. Thank God!

China’s universalist vision is radically different. It doesn’t seek to evangelize and convert the world to embrace the “China way.” It doesn’t seek to externalize itself. It is deeply ethnocentric and geographical. Historically, as Martin Jacques pointed out, China saw itself as ‘the land under heaven’—with its rulers being divine beings having a divine mandate; it’s the ‘middle kingdom’—the very center of the world! It considered itself as the highest form of civilization.  

Harold French states that ancient China’s understanding of itself was a confident “unshakable conviction in the enduring universality of its values and ethics, its own culture, and its unquestioned centrality.” For almost 2000 years of its history, it held to the concept of the tian xia, that in the natural order of things, China is the rightful ruler over “everything under heaven.”

Certainly, history has humbled and humiliated China. However, in just a little over a decade or so, it’s again flexing its muscles. The giant has awakened! In today’s geopolitics, China is more intent on strengthening its own geographical position by economic power and the build up of it arms. Its claim of ownership of the entire South China Sea (for resources and security) is evidence of that. 

Historically, we may take comfort in the fact that it’s not been the practice of China to go out and invade other kingdoms or nations to plant and expand itself abroad. Rather, its practice of dominance was the so-called ‘tribute system,’ a very loose and indirect form of domination of other kingdoms. French says that historically, “at the foundation of this remarkably resilient Pax Sinica (Chinese Peace) lay a basic proposition that was reasonably consistent: Accept our superiority and we will confer upon you political legitimacy, develop a trade partnership and provide a range of… public goods.”

China’s rise to economic and military power in recent times is nothing short of remarkable! With Xi Jinping’s aggressive leadership, it’s asserting itself not just as a player but as a global mover and shaper. The international power brokers are now forced to deal with China as a co-equal player in the global scene.

The President knows that the Philippines is in a chess game with China. He plays mindful of the fact that China is the dominant player and can play aggressive if it wants to. The President’s every move is calculated on whether the country will be in a better or worse position vis a vis China. Many have expressed dismay over the President’s “weak” response to China. Maybe they’re right, maybe not. One thing you can’t deny the President is that he has the country’s best interest in mind in every move he makes. 

It’s difficult to question the President’s courage in facing the gargantuan problems of the country (drugs, corruption, insurgency, and terrorism). He’s played ‘hardball’ with such problems (his critics would say ‘overly’ hard, like his ‘war on drugs’). But with China, the President soft-pedals. He strategizes carefully, playing his chess pieces to keep and maintain a viable defensive position. His moves do not sit well with his critics, and even some of his allies. 

Everybody’s got a weakness, and China seems to be the President’s Achilles’ heel. He is very open about the fact that when it comes to China, his options are very limited. To say that it’s not easy being in his position is a terrible understatement. He needs wisdom, discernment, and fortitude from Above. Let’s pray for our President.