Philippine marines on exercise with their Amphibious Assault Vehicles during a landing at a beach facing the South China Sea north of Manila on September 21, 2019. Tensions are rising between the Philippines and China. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

After an unprecedented war of words as tensions mount in the South China Sea, Beijing has been scrambling to win back its newfound friends in Manila.

Only days after the Philippines for the first time explicitly called on Beijing to abide by the 2016 arbitral tribunal award in the South China Sea, which nullified the bulk of China’s claims in adjacent waters, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi held extensive talks with his Filipino counterpart.

Meanwhile, Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian vowed to prioritize the Philippines for any Covid-19 vaccine distribution, while warning against US “meddling” in regional disputes. 

But US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s latest statements on the South China Sea disputes, which not only rejected Beijing’s expansive claims but also affirmed the Philippines’ claims in its exclusive economic zone, has seemingly encouraged regional allies to take a tougher stance against China. 

With hardening anti-China sentiments in the Philippines, and Beijing’s failure to fulfill its promise of large-scale investments, the Southeast Asian country’s defense establishment is also doubling down on its criticism of China’s aggressive behavior. 

“We need to cherish the hard-won friendly situation,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi underlined during a video conference with his Philippine counterpart Teodoro Locsin last week. Marking the 45th anniversary of the establishment of formal diplomatic ties, the Chinese diplomat was eager to reassure the Philippine government and downplay any differences.  

Philippines’ Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin has been talking to his Chinese counterpart. Photo: AFP/Lillian Suwanrumpha

Only days later, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian promised Manila would be a top priority in the provision of any “global public good,” especially the development of Covid-19 vaccines. 

“When the Covid-19 vaccine is developed and put into use, China will give priority to providing it to the Philippines, as a global public good,” he added.

Aside from efforts to “fast track” essential travel between the two countries and establishing a “green channel” for the swift delivery of critical goods and services, China also promised to aid the Philippines’ economic recovery program.

“As the resumption of work and production proceeds in an orderly manner, there will be more Chinese-financed projects in the Philippines which will inject strong impetus to the local economic recovery and improvement of people’s livelihood,” he added.

The Chinese envoy, however, was also quick to place blame on the US for “flexing muscles, stirring up tension and inciting confrontation in the region.” Referring to Pompeo’s latest policy statement, which rejected much of China’s claims in the South China Sea as “unlawful,” Huang advised regional states to be on “high alert” amid what he described as the US’ “intensified meddling.”

“While China and ASEAN countries (are) working very hard on managing the South China Sea issue, we have to be on high alert that the United States as an external force has also been intensifying its meddling in the South China Sea,” warned the Chinese diplomat, accusing Pompeo of “distorting” facts and “sow[ing] discord between China and other littoral countries.”

But there are growing signs that China’s charm offensive is wearing off. Since coming to power in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has made warmer ties with China a top foreign policy priority. But the lack of big-ticket Chinese investments, as well as increasingly aggressive actions by Chinese maritime forces, seems to have undercut the strategic honeymoon. 

The latest surveys show that the Wuhan-originated Covid-19 pandemic has hardened public distrust towards China among a growing number of Filipinos. 

According to the latest Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey, conducted from July 3 to 6, only about one fifth, or 22%, of respondents said they had “much trust” in China. As many as six out of 10 Filipinos, or 58%, expressed “little trust” in the Asian powerhouse. 

China’s net -36 “bad” trust rating marked a new low, nine points lower than the “poor” -27 last December. The authoritative survey also showed that 61% of Filipinos either “strongly believed” (28%) or “somewhat believed” (33%) accusations that “China did not immediately share their information on Covid-19 to the world,” thus contributing to the severity of the global crisis.  

As many as eight out of 10 Filipinos, or 77%, said China should be held accountable for the public health and economic crisis caused by the pandemic. Deepening anti-China sentiment among the public has coincided with a toughening stance among leading foreign and defense policy officials. 

Over the past month, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsis has warned China of the “severest response” if its military activities spilled over into Philippine waters and told China that the 2016 arbitral tribunal is “non-negotiable” as well as final and binding. 

During his recent conversations with China’s foreign minister, he “reiterated the importance of continued dialogue to propel Philippines-China cooperation forward across various fronts, under the ‘new normal’ brought about by the global Covid-19 pandemic.” But there were clear signs of lingering tensions, with the Filipino diplomat sticking to a “frank but cordial” exchange with his Chinese counterpart. 

The Filipino diplomatic chief is not alone in adopting an increasingly tough stance against China. Crucially, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has overseen the rapid modernization of Philippine naval forces as well as the fortification of the country’s facilities in the disputed land features across Spratlys, has also advocated a more proactive stance in the South China Sea. 

Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to this disputed South China Sea island on April 21, 2017, brushing off a challenge by the Chinese military while asserting Manila’s territorial claim to the strategic region. Photo: AFP/Ted Aljibe

If anything, the Philippine defense chief has openly backed the US’ warning against China, reflecting growing confidence in American resolve and commitment to its regional allies. Last month, Lorenzana echoed the US’ US Pacific Air Force Commander, General Charles Brown Jr, who warned against any Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone (Adiz) in the South China Sea as a violation of the “rules-based international order” and a direct threat to “international airspace.”

“An Adiz by China over the entire South China Sea would arrogate unto itself a vast sea considered to be a global commons that has been opened for millennia to all for navigation and fishing,” said Lorenzana, reminding Beijing that “[a] lot of countries will treat this Adiz as illegal and violative of international laws.” 

In fact, the Philippine defense chief was also among the first regional leaders to openly welcome Pompeo’s South China Sea statement. 

“We strongly agree with the position of the international community that there should be a rules-based order in the South China Sea,” said Lorenzana, imploring China to “heed the call of the community of nations to follow international law and honor existing international agreements.”

Asia Times Financial is now live. Linking accurate news, insightful analysis and local knowledge with the ATF China Bond 50 Index, the world's first benchmark cross sector Chinese Bond Indices. Read ATF now.