Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) toast during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mark R Cristino

Fostering productive and stable ties with China despite perennial challenges is one of the hallmark legacies of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Under his watch, trade, investment, tourism and infrastructure financing from China grew.

Dialogue mechanisms were put in place to handle the long-standing maritime row. Although incidents at sea in the last six years continued to stir domestic discontent, overall relations remain sound. 

At the same time, while expanding economic ties with Beijing, the Duterte administration also hardened its position in contested waters. It presided over a golden age for defense spending, shoring up the capacity of its armed forces, especially its navy, coast guard and air force.

The government also embarked on the biggest-ever construction upgrade in Pag-asa (Thitu Island), its largest administered feature in the West Philippine Sea. The landmark 2016 arbitration tribunal ruling was also raised in domestic and international forums.

As the nation heads to polls in two months’ time, this enigmatic game-changing foreign-policy feat has become the subject of intense debate. 

The Philippines’ relationship with China is one of its most comprehensive and demanding. People-to-people ties date back centuries, and the ethnic Chinese community has made indelible contributions to the country’s history, economy and culture.

China is the country’s largest trade partner, while the long-standing territorial and maritime tiff has been an enduring diplomatic and security nuisance. Hence compartmentalizing the disputes so that they do not affect overall relations has been the holy grail for both sides, but especially for the Philippines. 

Manila’s rapprochement with Beijing eased tensions and created economic openings. From one of Asia’s most toxic relationships, ties between the two neighbors greatly improved.

Dubbed the “rainbow after the storm,” the sea change brought commercial and security dividends, notwithstanding the persistence of irritants. China emerged as the country’s biggest trade partner, with Beijing committing to buy more Philippine agricultural goods.

Chinese funding is transforming the country’s infrastructure, with irrigation, dam, railway and bridge projects under way, while Chinese telecom technologies and capital are enhancing the country’s digital connectivity.

The synergy of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and the Philippines’ Build, Build, Build program became evident.

As several countries reopen to tourism, the much-awaited return of Chinese arrivals, the world’s largest outbound market, portends good tidings for the beleaguered local tourism industry.

In the security sphere, China became an active partner in the campaign against terrorism and narcotics. Arms and ammunition were donated to recapture Marawi from the clutches of militants in 2017, followed by a grant of cash and heavy equipment to support the city’s reconstruction.

Furthermore, rehabilitation centers were established to contribute to the Philippine war against illegal drugs. In 2017, a tip from Chinese customs from the port city of Xiamen led to the biggest drug bust in Philippine history.

Early this year, China also handed over the first batch of 1 billion pesos’ (US$19.18 million) worth of equipment to aid the Philippine military’s counterterrorism, rescue and relief missions.     

Friendly ties were also critical in times of calamities. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, China was a pioneer in donating masks, personal protective equipment and test kits and was the first to dispatch a team of medical experts to share best practices with their Filipino peers. After developing its vaccines, Beijing once again was the first to donate and commercially supply doses to the country.

When Typhoon Odette (internationally known as Rai) raged through the tropical archipelago last December, Beijing donated 20,000 food packs and 10,000 metric tons of rice and pledged 100 million yuan ($15.76 million) to support the recovery of damaged areas.

All these show how the turnaround in relations redounds to the country’s benefit. 

However, maritime issues continue to trouble relations. To this end, joint development of offshore oil and gas has been floated as one practical approach. Filipino presidential aspirants have weighed in on the subject and expressed openness to the idea, with varying caveats. 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi argued in January that the two neighbors “need to come up with the resolve as soon as possible to advance joint development without prejudice to either side’s rights and claims, so that [they] can turn the South China Sea issue from a challenge into an opportunity and a positive factor conducive to the development of the Philippines and the friendship between [the] two peoples.”

Most of the country’s hydrocarbon resources are located in its western continental shelf, including in the promising Recto (Reed) Bank, a flashpoint between the two competing claimants. 

Joint development has figured in high-level bilateral consultative meetings that have convened six times. The skyrocketing price of imported oil due to the conflict in Ukraine and growing demand from economies recovering from the pandemic renew the salience of the idea.

But constitutional hurdles, the 2016 arbitration ruling, and domestic opposition pose serious threats.

As the electoral campaign heats up, bilateral relations may be up for a bumpy ride. Duterte’s policy toward China and the West Philippine Sea will naturally invite criticisms from wanna-be successors posturing that they can do better.

And while the Philippines braces for the leadership transition, the ruling Communist Party of China is also set to hold its 20th National Congress late in the year. Against the backdrop of rising nationalism, growing capabilities, and mounting people’s expectations from their governments, the room for compromise will narrow, complicating diplomacy. 

Chinese leaders have recognized Duterte’s feat but are wary of the uncertainty that lies ahead. Wang Yi suggested that the consensus reached by the top leaders of both sides be sustained, active communication be kept and for the two neighbors to stay anchored on the positive side of the relations. 

Although not without serious tests, Duterte’s China gambit has paid off, delivering economic goods, keeping relations on firm footing, and contributing to regional stability.

Despite his controversial war on drugs and polarizing China policy, he continues to enjoy high public approval months before he steps down from office. He expended enormous political capital to defend his domestic and foreign policy. A less charismatic and popular leader may struggle to replicate the same. 

Lucio B Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He writes on Asian security and connectivity issues.