In the early days of his tenure, firebrand Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte upended decades of foreign policy by moving his country away from its long-time ally the US and pivoting towards China.
Chinese and Philippine officials heralded a “golden period” in their relations but, four years later, it could be coming to an end, according to regional observers.
Growing Chinese military assertiveness in the South China Sea and unfulfilled investment promises – coupled with a souring public mood in the Philippines over China’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic – have led the Duterte administration to rethink its ties with Beijing.
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In June, the Philippines reversed an earlier decision to scrap its Visiting Forces Agreement with the US. In the same month, it completed construction of a beaching ramp on an island in the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly chain.
The ramp, on Thitu Island, will allow the Philippines to proceed with long-delayed runway repairs which were put on hold by Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III, pending the outcome of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the competing claims over the region.
The international tribunal found in favour of the Philippines, ruling in 2016 that China’s claims over most of the South China Sea were invalid. China has never accepted the ruling. In its strongest signal yet, the Philippines marked the 4th anniversary of the decision with a statement reaffirming its victory as “non-negotiable” and called on China to comply with the finding in “good faith”.
It was a sharp turnaround for Duterte, a self-described socialist known for his anti-American rhetoric, who previously vowed to “separate” from the US and put aside his country’s historic win at The Hague in exchange for Chinese investment to boost the Philippines economy.
Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana repeated the call for China to comply with the 2016 arbitration on July 14, in response to an announcement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that China’s claims in the South China Sea were unlawful.
Despite the portrayal of Duterte as being more China-friendly, it is under his term that the US has increased assistance and military cooperation with the Philippines.
Zhang Mingliang, Jinan University
In a statement, Lorenzana said Manila “strongly agrees with the position of the international community that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea”.
Filipino analysts said these were all signs Manila was changing its approach and moving away from its policy of “unconditional appeasement” towards China.
“There is a growing perception here, even for President Duterte himself, that efforts to earn China’s goodwill are not reciprocated,” said Renato Cruz De Castro, a senior professor in international studies at De La Salle University in Manila.
Duterte has visited China six times to secure a pledge from Beijing to fund an array of major construction projects for his signature “Build, Build, Build” programme. But, as his term draws to a close, he has little to show for the much-touted pivot to China. Most of the promised funding has not been delivered and many projects remain on the drawing board.
Meanwhile, many in the Philippines believe China has continued its encroachment in the South China Sea. In February, a Chinese navy ship reportedly pointed a radar gun at a Philippine navy patrol vessel.
Renato said these developments had shown that “Chinese policy in the South China Sea is still business as usual”.
“There’s a perception here that China did not fulfil its end of the bargain. So what’s the point of continuing this appeasement policy if we are not getting what we expect China should be extending in return for the goodwill we have extended to China?” he said.
Distrust of China in the Philippines has worsened in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and observers said the country was likely to experience a public backlash against Duterte’s China-friendly approach.
The slowness in implementing travel restrictions on arrivals from China also led to questions about the policy among many of the Philippine political establishment, long sceptical of Chinese intentions.
In a sign of public antagonism, the Chinese embassy in Manila attracted widespread ridicule when it posted a music video to YouTube in April. The song, titled Iisang Dagat – “One Sea” – was intended to celebrate relations between the two countries and their shared fight against the coronavirus.
Instead, it was seen as a propaganda effort to whitewash Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and received hundreds of thousands of dislikes. An online petition demanded its removal.
This month, a survey of 1,555 Filipinos found 61 per cent believed China had initially withheld information about the severity of the new coronavirus outbreak after it emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan.
An earlier survey, also in July, by the same polling institute – the independent Social Weather Stations in the Philippines – found China was the most distrusted country among the public.
Rommel Banlaoi, President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, said China needed to “allay the fear” in the Philippines of its military intention in the contested waters.
“There is a tendency for the Philippines to lean back to the United States when it feels that its security interest is being threatened by China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea,” he said.
But Zhang Mingliang, an associate professor specialising in South China Sea studies at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said the Philippines had never moved away from its treaty ally, even under Duterte. “Despite the portrayal of Duterte as being more China-friendly, it is under his term that the US has increased assistance and military cooperation with the Philippines,” he said.
“In fact,” he added, “there is not much difference between the two [Philippine] presidents. It’s just that Duterte is a more shrewd politician than Aquino and understands that he needs to give face to China. He was able to balance between China and the US and get benefits from both sides.”
Both Castro and Banlaoi believe the Philippines and other claimants in the South China Sea will continue to walk a tightrope between China and the US as the two powers’ rivalry intensifies.
“While Duterte is re-engaging the United States, he made it known to the United States that the US can no longer dictate foreign policy of the Philippines,” Banlaoi said.
“The interest of the Philippines is no longer identical to the United States. It just so happens that in the current development of the South China Sea, the interest of the Philippines and the interest of the United States are converging.
“The Philippine government will continue to assert our military alliance with the United States, but the United States should not dictate our policy … and the Philippine government still wants to sustain our friendship with China,” he said.
Castro said Asean countries, including the Philippines, would continue to be “quiet and cautious”, despite the new US position on the South China Sea.
“Asean countries, most of them realist, want great power competition in a manner that will enable them to play one power against another … But the worst nightmare would be a head-on conflict which will be fought here in Southeast Asia,” he said.
“Nobody wants to be put in the middle of great power competition or even confrontation.”
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This article Golden period of China-Philippines friendship loses its shine first appeared on South China Morning Post