MANILA–Within a month, the Philippines is expected to elect a new president. And with a new leadership comes the expectation of potential change, both in terms of domestic conditions as well as foreign policy.

Over the past six years, the Philippines has lived up to the hype, featuring among the world’s next breakout nations. Sick man of Asia no more, it has posted above-average growth rates, boasting among the fastest growing economies in the world. It is also host to the world’s largest Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry, overtaking the Indian behemoth.

The BPO sector provides relatively well-paying jobs for more than a million people, and constituting almost a tenth of the Philippines’ Gross Domestic Product. Coupled with a boom in the real estate and retail industry — and buoyed by consumer spending on the back of robust remittances from Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) — the services sector has served as the engine of the Philippines’ economic takeoff.

Yet, recently generated growth remains to lack inclusiveness, with majority of Filipinos still suffering from double-digit poverty and underemployment rates. Snail-paced infrastructural development has also contributed to suffocating traffic in major cities, particularly in Metro-Manila, underlining the shortcomings of the Benigno Aquino administration’s development strategy. So the hope is that the next administration will plug the gaps and build on the good governance initiatives of the incumbent.

Aside from determining the fate of a promising economy and investment destination, the upcoming presidential elections also has implications for the Philippines’ foreign policy, particularly with respect to China and the South China Sea disputes. A careful examination, however, reveals that there will most likely be more continuity rather than change under the next Philippine government.

Chinese and Philippines coast guard ships face off in South China Sea
Chinese and Philippines coast guard ships face off in South China Sea

Toxic relations

In particular, a growing number of analysts have been speculating as to whether the departure of the Aquino administration could usher in (i) a revival in Philippine-China relations and (ii) a reversal in the Southeast Asian country’s tough posturing in the disputed waters.

Nowadays, Filipino officials, along with the White House, have been blatantly characterizing China as a bully, while Beijing has dismissed its counterparts in Manila as a bunch of troublemakers. Not shy with rhetorical flourish and invoking historical metaphors, President Aquino, on at least two occasions, likened China to Nazi Germany, including during a high-profile state visit to Japan.

High-level institutionalized dialogue between the two neighbors has essentially collapsed, with Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has met almost all leaders in Asia, having shown little interest in holding a single formal dialogue with his Filipino counterpart. The feeling seems to be mutual. When asked about the necessity for robust bilateral dialogue to resolve differences with China, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who has had particularly testy relations with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, lamented: “We are for bilateral talks, but we ran into a dead end in terms of using that approach.”

So far, the Philippines is the only country that has dared to take China to international court over the South China Sea disputes. Under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), the Philippines is also opening a number of its military and civilian facilities to American military forces. Without a question, the Philippines has opted for a more confrontational approach towards China, while augmenting defense cooperation with major allies such as the United States and, over the past three years, with Japan.

Less than a decade ago, the Philippines and China were enjoying a ‘golden age’, albeit short-lived, in bilateral relations. Back in 2005, they signed the Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU), which provided the legal basis for joint development activities among the Philippines, China and Vietnam in contested waters. This was followed by major China-led projects centered on enhancing the Philippines’ creaking telecommunications and transportation infrastructure.

Quite naturally, some are wondering whether the seismic shift in Philippine-China relations is a product of the Philippines’ domestic politics, particularly the preference of specific administration in charge. And whether the departure of the Aquino administration could swing relations back to what they were during the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010) administration.

Given the Philippines’ reactive strategic culture, it’s clear that the Aquino administration’s tough posturing vis-à-vis China has been a response to the latter’s growing territorial assertiveness rather than a conscious, policy choice on the part of the former. Right until 2012, the Aquino administration in fact tirelessly sought to find a common ground with Beijing. From Aquino’s controversial decision to skip the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony for the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to his high-profile state visit to Beijing in 2011, it was plainly clear that he preferred engagement to confrontation.

But the 2012 Scarborough Shoal crisis, which concluded with China occupying a Philippines-claimed feature as well China’s subsequent decision to ‘disinvite’ Aquino during the 2013 China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning burned bilateral bridges. In short, the Aquino administration was simply responding to what it perceived as Chinese belligerence and brinkmanship.

Room for maneuver

Grace Poe
Grace Poe

With only a month left before election day, the presidential race looks precariously tight, as four candidates — Senator Grace Poe, Interior Secretary Manuel “Mar” Roxas, Vice-Presdident Jejomar Binay, and Davao Mayor Rodrigo Duterte — jostle for the top position. The latest surveys, however, suggest that Poe and Duterte, who are seen as the two “anti-establishment” candidates, are in a good position to pull away from the rest of the pack.

For the first time in recent memory, foreign policy has become a campaign issue in Philippine elections. The leading candidates, however, have so far confined their positions to largely general statements rather than policy specifics. This could be partly due to the fact that the South China Sea disputes and relations with China are tricky issues that are deemed as political minefields.

For starters, amid massive anti-China sentiments in the country, talks of engagement with China could easily invite political backlash. Also, the Arroyo administration’s cozy relationship with China has left a deeply negative legacy. The JMSU has been largely seen as an unconstitutional, if not treasonous, agreement. China’s massive infrastructure investment projects, which would be embroiled in corruption scandals, were also perceived by many as Beijing’s bribe in exchange for Arroyo administration’s supposed concessions on the South China Sea disputes. No wonder then, the Aquino administration was even reluctant with joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) out of fear of falling into the same trap.

Nonetheless, at least two candidates, Binay and Duterte, have dared to talk about the necessity of exploring joint development agreements with China. But Roxas, who was the last high-level Philippine official to have a direct meeting with Xi Jinping back in 2012, has promised more of status quo. Meanwhile, Poe, who is seen as the other preferred candidate of the incumbent, has also promised more of continuity, though she has expressed procedural opposition to the EDCA.

Rodrigo Duterte
Rodrigo Duterte

Unlike the incumbent, all the leading candidates seem to be open to direct engagement with the Chinese leadership and have refrained from incendiary rhetoric adopted by the Aquino administration. All of them have also expressed support, in varying forms, for the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, which is expect to conclude in coming weeks. But any major breakthrough in Philippine-China relations will require politically-sensitive concessions on both sides.

On his/her part, the next Filipino president can offer concessions on how it will approach the final verdict of the Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague, especially if it is in Manila’s favor, as well as the trajectory of security relations with traditional allies, particularly in terms of the EDCA, which is an executive agreement, as well as the proposed Status of Forces Agreement with Japan. But the next Filipino president will also have to have an unbesmirched track record and carry sufficient political capital if it were to negotiate any joint development agreement with China, which may require constitutional amendments and invite huge public scrutiny.

Most importantly, however, it will be almost impossible for the next Filipino president to dramatically shift the country’s foreign policy unless China, as the more powerful party, offers tangible concessions of its own. Otherwise, Aquino’s successor will invite political backlash and be branded as an “Arroyo 2.0.” Thus, the room for maneuver for the next Filipino president is limited and conditional.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a political science professor at De La Salle University, Philippines, and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London).

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

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