During a trip to China in October 2016, which was depicted by some of his countrymen as a tributary mission by a Philippine sultan to a Chinese emperor rather than a state visit by a sovereign leader, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte offered the “Middle Kingdom” two precious “gifts.”
The first was his solemn announcement at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing that he would “separate” from America, his country’s only formal military ally, and to align himself with China’s “ideological flow,” on which he “will be dependent … for a long time.”
The second, and probably more valuable, “gift” was the maverick president’s willingness to play down the South China Sea arbitration case against China his country resoundingly won in July 2016 and to resolve the Philippines’ maritime disputes with the Asian behemoth through bilateral talks.
In April 2018, before his departure for China’s Boao Forum, where he would also meet his Chinese counterpart, Duterte said: “I just simply love Xi Jinping. He […] understands my problem, and he’s willing to help. And I would like to say ‘Thank you, China.’”
In a speech in Manila attended by China’s ambassador and Chinese-Filipino businessmen a few months earlier, he even joked that the giant neighbor could make his country its province. Perhaps, no other national leader dares to utter such remarks publicly.
At regional forums, Duterte has also often made comments that strongly favor China and disadvantage his own country, other South China Sea claimants and concerned nations. For instance, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Summit in Singapore last November, he declared that China “is already in possession” of the disputed waters and that he opposed military exercises by the United States and other countries in the area because such activities would provoke Beijing.
A defining reason behind Duterte’s overt pivot to China – and especially his appeasing posture toward Beijing on the maritime issue – was his hope that he could get Chinese financial support for his ambitious infrastructure-building spree, namely the “Build, Build, Build” program.
In fact, in rewarding him for openly pledging to shift his country’s allegiance from the US toward China and, especially, to set aside the landmark South China Sea ruling during his China trip in 2016, Chinese leaders vowed to provide the Philippines with $24 billion in aid, loans and investments. During Xi’s trip to the Philippines in November last year – the first such visit by a Chinese leader since 2005 – the two sides also signed many other deals.
Most of China’s promised investments have not materialized, however. Of the 10 proposed big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects, only one has so far cleared the preliminary stages of implementation. For some Philippine officials and analysts, the slow pace of Chinese investments could be a blessing in disguise because their country would avoid the Chinese “debt trap” that some other countries have fallen into and other analysts and leaders have warned about.
Chinese loans are seen as lacking transparency, quality, viability and sustainability, which is why many people, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have warned the Philippines about the risks
Chinese loans are seen as lacking transparency, quality, viability and sustainability, which is why many people, including Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, have warned the Philippines about the risks.
During a visit to the Philippines last month, Malaysia’s veteran leader also warned Manila against letting in foreigners who could “disturb the political equations.” The 93-year-old politician, who is wary of China’s actions and has (successfully) sought to renegotiate the terms of a high-profile Beijing-financed project his predecessor had agreed, made such a warning because at least 200,000 Chinese nationals have flocked to the Philippines since Duterte came to power in 2016.
All this raises the question of whether the Philippine president’s overt overtures toward China have really paid off for his country.
Indeed, his China embrace, especially his quid pro quo policy toward Beijing, by trading territory and legal advantage for money, has so far failed to bring about the economic benefits he had hoped for.
Worse still, despite his strategic appeasement – or perhaps, because of his submissive and defeatist stance – vis-à-vis China, the latter has become more assertive and aggressive in the South China Sea.
Besides pledges of loans and investments, Beijing has also promised peace, stability, good-neighborliness and a partnership for prosperity with the Philippines. For example, on the eve of his trip to the Philippines, President Xi penned a piece for some Filipino newspapers, titled “Open up a new future together for China-Philippine relations.”
To convince the Southeast Asian nation that China is a good neighbor, who loves its neighbor as itself, in that so-called “signed article,” the Chinese president quoted the Confucius saying “Do not do to others what you do not want others to do to you.”
But in recent months, it seems China has done the opposite of what its “core” leader preached and promised.
Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said early this month that more than 200 Chinese coast guard and fishing vessels were spotted near Thitu island, also known as Pag-asa island in the Philippines, since the start of the year and that Manila filed a diplomatic protest over their presence around the Philippine-occupied island.
The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs also issued a statement, stressing the “presence of Chinese vessels near and around Pag-asa and other maritime features in the [Kalayaan Island Group, the Philippines’ name for the Spratly Islands] is illegal.”
Duterte himself was even blunter. “I will not plead or beg, but I am just telling you that lay off the Pag-asa because I have soldiers there,” he warned the Chinese. “If you make a move there, that’s another story. I will tell my soldiers: ‘Prepare for suicide missions.’”
It is also reported that Chinese vessels have been harvesting giant clams in Scarborough Shoal, prompting the Philippines’ Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. to announce on April 15 that his country “will be taking legal action” against Chinese nationals’ actions.
Duterte, well known for his bluster, is both mercurial and expressive. Yet, judging by the strongman’s above comments as well as recent remarks by his top aides, it’s clear that Manila is not pleased with Beijing’s latest aggressive moves. They may also indicate a change in his administration’s view and policy toward Beijing.
There are other signs that the Duterte government is becoming wary of Beijing. These include Manila’s efforts to revive its strained alliance with Washington.
On April 7, Foreign Affairs Secretary Locsin asserted that the US is “the only world power that is a bastion of democracy and human rights,” stressing that the world’s most powerful country “is and will remain our only military ally. We don’t need any other.”
A week later, the Philippines’ top diplomat tweeted, “China is far, far, far, far behind the US in military destructive power.”
Though Duterte previously opposed military exercises by the US and other countries, such as Australia, a security partner of the Philippines, in the South China Sea, 7,550 soldiers from the Philippines, the US and Australia participated in major military drills, known as Balikatan, from April 1-12 on the islands of Luzon and Palawan.
The Balikatan 2019 exercise, which was the biggest show of force between the US and the Philippines since Duterte took office, featured the Wasp, an amphibious assault ship equipped with F-35 stealth fighters. One of its key training objectives occurred on April 10, when US troops and their Philippine counterparts conducted their first joint airfield seizure exercise. Such an arms live-fire exercise at Crow Valley Gunnery Range on Luzon, an island adjacent to the South China Sea, was aimed at helping Manila deal with any potential island invasion [supposedly by China].
The Duterte government’s recent tough rhetoric against China and its swing back to the US are probably also because the Philippines’ mid-term elections are nearing.
While the 74-year old leader won’t be on the ballot, the elections on May 13, when millions of Philippine voters will elect lawmakers and local government leaders, are widely seen as a referendum on the first three years of his presidency. A public opinion survey in November 2018 showed that 84% of Filipinos disapproved of his administration’s inaction over China’s aggressive incursion into Philippine territory.
Yet, whatever the reasons behind Manila’s latest tough talks against China, it’s clear that Duterte has given the Asian power a lot but got very little in return. In some respects, his China pivot has backfired on his country.