Beijing may prefer to play the longer game in Manila hostage dispute

Tim Collard says while Hong Kong is justified in pursuing its dispute over the Manila hostage killings, Beijing may not share its desire for a quick resolution, seeing it as another front in its broader disagreements with the Philippines

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 February, 2014, 2:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 November, 2016, 8:29am

Hong Kong has taken its first dip in the stormy waters of the diplomatic power game. Following an inadequate response by Philippines President Benigno Aquino to the incident in 2010, in which eight Hongkongers were killed in a badly handled gun battle, the Hong Kong government has announced that official and diplomatic Philippine passport holders - up to 800 visit the city each year - would no longer be allowed to benefit from a 14-day visa-free travel arrangement.

The aim is to punish Filipino officials for their perceived arrogance and insensitivity, not to inconvenience the whole nation. But some lawmakers have called for an end to all visa-free treatment for visitors from the Philippines by mid-2015, a far more wide-ranging sanction.

The government's view is that the Aquino administration is not taking the affair seriously enough. When an independent assessment panel recommended that criminal charges be lodged against eight police officers, this was watered down to a suggestion that only administrative charges be brought.

Watch: Philippine bus hostage-taking incident

This probably represents not a deliberately obstructive attitude on the part of the Philippines, but an insuperable difference in perception. The Filipino police were undoubtedly massively incompetent, to an extent that would be criminal in a well-ordered polity such as Hong Kong; but to make official incompetence a crime in the Philippines would require a hundredfold expansion in prison-building.

This is the first time Hong Kong has found itself embroiled in a diplomatic fracas like this. It is not supposed to have jurisdiction in foreign policy matters; these would normally come under the aegis of Beijing, which currently has its own separate disagreements with the Philippines.

However, it probably suits Beijing quite well for Hong Kong to be pursuing its own dispute with Manila - attacking on another front, so to speak. It would be ludicrous to suppose that Hong Kong does not have at least implicit backing from Beijing in taking a strong line with the Philippines government; had the dispute involved a country with which China was trying to maintain good relations, Hong Kong would not be allowed to press so hard.

But, as things stand, Hong Kong is not only justified in raising a separate issue outside the scope of the direct Manila-Beijing confrontation, but is also licensed to do so. And it is right for Hong Kong to make good use of this licence; it has its own dog in this fight. The Filipino presence in Hong Kong is of an entirely different nature to that on the mainland, and is also, in proportion to the size of the population, far larger.

Of course, the central government can be expected to include Hong Kong's concerns in its dealings with the Philippines, but we must take into account the fact that Beijing does not necessarily share Hong Kong's wish for a speedy resolution of what it can only see as a minor dispute, except in the context of an overall solution to the disagreements between the two countries. This is the tricky aspect of this case; that the interests of the People's Republic and of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, though broadly aligned, do not exactly coincide. Hong Kong would prefer to get back to business as usual as soon as possible; the mainland may be preparing to play a longer game.

Meanwhile, quite apart from Beijing's wider interests, it remains perfectly legitimate for Hong Kong to demand apologies and explanations from the government of the Philippines for such an appalling incident. A country that runs a flourishing tourist industry has to face up to the need to protect its tourists from foreseeable dangers, and to ensure that its police are properly trained to deal with incidents. However often Aquino insists that the tragic events were not his fault and thus do not require an apology, he cannot escape the fact that the affair fell under his government's responsibility.

And it is important not to forget the underlying reason why Hong Kong is a good deal better at looking after its own people and its visitors than the Philippines are. The Philippines has large areas of lawlessness, contributed to by unalleviated poverty and corrupt officials, including policemen. Hong Kong, though a model free market economy, keeps a close eye on potential corruption and ensures that supportive social structures are in place to prevent the growth of crime and social degradation. Though this costs money, Hong Kong's government and taxpayers regard it as money well spent.

The Philippine government, however well intentioned, is paralysed by the fact that the rich there have no sense of responsibility. And thus some Filipinos are not at all offended by the action taken by Hong Kong. "So the senators can't go shopping," one is reported as saying, before confessing an inability to shed tears over the fact.

The Philippines is a lovely country full of lovely people, and a wonderful place to visit, but the Filipinos will have to up their game in a region that is no longer as tolerant of low standards as it once was.

Tim Collard is a former UK diplomat specialising in China. He spent nine years as an analyst in Beijing