Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino

Judging by the words of Chinese President Xi Jinping and his host, President Rodrigo Duterte, before and during his recent two-day trip to the Philippines, ties between the two countries have blossomed. But one may doubt whether this blossoming relationship will last beyond the Duterte presidency.

On Monday – a day before his departure for Manila – China’s key news outlets, such as Xinhua News Agency, the Global Times and the China Daily, disseminated a piece by Xi titled “Open up a new future together for China-Philippine relations.” According to these Chinese state-run media, Xi’s signed article was published by three Philippine newspapers, namely The Philippine Star, Manila Bulletin and Daily Tribune.

As it was mainly aimed at the Filipinos, Xi used very optimistic, if not adulatory, language to describe the Philippines, the thousand-year interaction between the two neighbors and, especially, flourishing ties between the two sides under Duterte.

“Since President Duterte took office” in June 2016, Xi wrote, “China and the Philippines have re-engaged in dialogue and consultation for the proper handling of the South China Sea issue. Our relations have now seen a rainbow after the rain.”

He then said the main purpose of his visit was to “have in-depth discussions” with the Filipino leader on how to make “greater progress” to elevate the relationship to “a higher level” and pledged that “China will work with the Philippines to seize the opportunity and go along with the trend of our time.”

Xi was so upbeat about his outing as well as the current and future relationship between the two countries because his country could hardly find a better international partner than Duterte – especially at a time when China and the United States are embroiled in disputes on several fronts and forcefully vying for influence in the wider region.

Though the Chinese leader didn’t elaborate on it, the “rain” period in China-Philippine ties took place under Benigno Aquino, Duterte’s predecessor, during which the two neighbors engaged in mutual acrimony over their South China Sea disputes.

In 2012, China seized the then Philippine-occupied Scarborough Shoal after a months-long standoff. This led the Aquino government to launch a case against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA).

In its final award issued on July 12, 2016, less than two weeks before Duterte took office, The Hague-based PCA invalidated many of Beijing’s contentious claims and unlawful actions in the disputed area – including its so-called “nine-dash line,” which covers almost all the 3.5-million-square-kilometer sea and its violation of the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone.

Such a resounding ruling by a United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) tribunal was a massive blow for Beijing – not only legally but also diplomatically, because it showed China is not just an aggressive neighbor but also a violator of international law.

Yet in the hope of receiving billions of dollars of loans and investment from Beijing, Duterte has decided to set aside the landmark judgment. In all his key international speeches over the past two years, Xi Jinping has repeatedly painted his country as a benign and law-abiding nation. Perhaps the Chinese president would not have confidently claimed that if Manila had constantly raised that final and legally binding ruling at regional and international fora, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the UN.

Duterte has made public comments that hugely advantage China and disadvantage his own country, along with other South China Sea claimants and concerned nations

Duterte has also made public comments that hugely advantage China and disadvantage his own country, along with other South China Sea claimants and concerned nations. For instance, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Singapore last week, he said that China “is already in possession” of the disputed waters and that he opposed military exercises by the US and other countries in the area because such activities would provoke Beijing.

Besides adopting an appeasing, if not submissive and defeatist, posture toward Beijing on the maritime issue, he has also decided to “separate” from the US, his country’s long-standing ally, and realign with China’s “ideological flow.”

In obsequious comments that perhaps no other national leader dares to utter publicly, the Philippine president has openly expressed his love for Xi Jinping, who “understands [his] problem [and] is willing to help,” and his gratitude for China, which he needs “more than anybody else.”

If Beijing and Manila were in mutual opposition under Aquino, they are now in mutual admiration.

In remarks last month, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi stated, “President Duterte is the most respected and most important friend for President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people.”

Their mutual affection and eagerness to strengthen bilateral ties were clearly manifested by and during Xi’s tour – the first state visit to the Philippines by a Chinese leader since 2005. Both leaders spoke highly of the trip, calling it “a historic occasion,” “a landmark moment” or “a new milestone” in the two countries’ relations.

Just as Xi had wished, they also agreed to elevate the “relationship into one of comprehensive, strategic cooperation.” In a sign that they have advanced their “all-around cooperation” and made “greater progress in [their] relationship toward a higher level” as Xi had suggested, Beijing and Manila signed 29 documents – a mix of memoranda of understanding, letters, certificates and commercial contracts aimed at expanding and deepening their cooperation.

Notable among those agreements are an MoU on oil and gas development in the South China Sea and another on cooperation on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), China’s trillion-dollar infrastructure program and Xi’s pet project.

Before Xi’s departure for Manila, the Global Times, an influential offspring of the People’s Daily, China’s top mouthpiece, said “President Rodrigo Duterte changed the Philippines’ diplomatic course and brought ties with China back to the right track.”

Without doubt, he has radically changed Manila’s foreign policy. But is it true that his China policy is “the right track”?

Simply because he wants to get some economic assistance from Beijing, Duterte has decided to sideline the South China Sea ruling – a huge legal victory that his country had fought hard for and deservedly won. Is it really worth trading territory and legal advantage for promises of loans and investment?

What were remarkably missing from Xi’s public remarks and the disclosed list of deals signed during his trip to the Philippines were the figures relating to mega-deals that Beijing pledged to offer the Southeast Asian nation in 2016.

This could be a hint that Beijing failed to deliver what it had promised. For a seasoned Filipino analyst, such a failure could be a blessing in disguise for his country because the Philippines would avoid the Chinese “debt trap” that some other countries have fallen into and other analysts and leaders have warned about.

However, if Xi didn’t make any real commitment to carry out the previous pledges, that would be a huge setback for Duterte, who has sought funding for his own ambitious infrastructure program, a US$180 billion “Build, Build, Build” initiative.

In rewarding him for publicly promising to shift his country’s allegiance from the US and toward China and, especially, to set aside the July 2016 ruling during his China trip in October 2016, Chinese leaders vowed to provide the Philippines with $15 billion worth of investment projects and $9 billion in loans.

The details of those $24 billion worth of deals were revealed by the Philippines’ trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, and widely published by the country’s newspapers. These include $5.5 billion for transportation and infrastructure, $1 billion for a hydroelectric power plant, $700 million for a steel plant, and $780 million for a port development project in Davao, Duterte’s home town.

But the list of 29 agreements reached during Xi’s Philippine tour and included in the joint statement as well as published by the Philippines’ government and media didn’t provide any information about the funding for each project or program.

In all his disclosed remarks, including at the joint press statement and the state dinner, Xi didn’t mention those billions or millions of dollars in aid, loans and investment either. The only figures he revealed were “another 50 government scholarship grants for Philippine students” and “10,000 tons of rice to help those communities devastated by Typhoon Ompong” that severely hit the Philippines in September.

For other observers, China’s $24 billion pledge to the Philippines has barely materialized, not purely because Beijing has failed to provide the vowed money but also because, unlike some other countries, the Philippines rigorously evaluates Chinese loans and Beijing-funded projects, which are often seen as lacking transparency, viability, quality and sustainability.

Either way, all this suggests Duterte’s strategic appeasement to China or his quid pro quo policy toward Beijing may not pay off – either for himself or for his 100-million-people country.

To convince the Filipino people that his country is a good and trustworthy neighbor, who loves its neighbor as itself, in his op-ed, Xi quoted Confucius’ saying “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.”

In remarks at the Philippines’ Presidential Palace in Manila on the first day of his visit on Tuesday, Xi said he had “been deeply moved” to have “seen the welcoming crowd including the local people and the young students … along the route here.”

But whether China’s authoritarian leader noticed or not, on that day a number of people also gathered outside the Chinese Embassy in Manila to protest against China’s maritime behavior and its “debt trap.”

Just hours before Xi’s arrival in the country, Social Weather Stations, a leading polling agency, released the results of a September survey, which showed most Filipinos distrust China and oppose Duterte’s inaction on China’s intrusion in the West Philippine Sea (the Philippines’ name for the South China Sea).

If backlashes against China-leaning leaders in other Asian countries, notably Malaysia and Maldives, in recent months are any guide, such findings are not good for either Duterte or Beijing.

Duterte may get personal assurances from Xi, now regarded as China’s president for life, that he “will not be taken out from office,” his time in power, as he was rightly reminded, depends on the Filipino people – not authoritarian leaders in Beijing. What’s more, as the Philippine constitution bars presidents from serving more than one six-year term and, apparently, he has a health problem, it’s very unlikely, if not unthinkable, that Duterte, now 73, will be in power beyond 2022.

On this reading, it may be safe to say that the Philippines’ currently flourishing ties with its giant neighbor won’t continue beyond the Duterte presidency – unless Chinese leaders seek to build a healthy relationship with the country as a whole rather than just to buy its leader’s support for Beijing’s national and regional ambitions.

Xuan Loc Doan

Dr Xuan Loc Doan researches and writes on a number of areas. These include the domestic and foreign policy of the UK, Vietnam and China, US-China relations and geopolitical issues in the Indo-Pacific region.

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