Chinese President Xi Jinping shows the way to then-Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte in a file photo. Photo: AFP

MANILA – “We have to talk and what I need from China is not anger,” said Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte just over a month before winning the 2016 elections during an interview with Chinese state broadcaster CGTN. “What I need from China is help to develop my country,” the then-presidential candidate clarified in one of his most illuminating pre-election interviews.

At home, however, he captivated the electorate with his characteristic chutzpah, jokingly vowing to “ride a jet ski” to challenge China’s occupation of Philippine-claimed land features in the South China Sea. But only a few local journalists managed to expose Duterte’s early pro-Beijing leanings.

Upon securing the presidency in 2016, the Filipino populist actively courted China as a national development partner and went so far as “set[ting] aside” the Philippines’ historic arbitration award victory against Beijing in the South China Sea.

Duterte became the first Filipino president to choose Beijing as his first major foreign trip, a distinction that historically belonged to either Washington or Tokyo. During his October 2016 visit, China offered Duterte $24 billion in investments, including big-ticket infrastructure projects under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Shortly after, the two sides even discussed joint patrols in the heavily disputed Scarborough Shoal, as well as potential joint ecological preservation schemes in the fisheries-rich area.

As Duterte enters his twilight months in office, however, the two neighbors have failed to finalize even a single big-ticket infrastructure project. Nor have the Philippines and China clinched any cooperative agreement in the disputed waters or a major defense agreement. If anything, the South China Sea disputes have festered, with China now having fully militarized a whole host of Philippine-claimed land features in the area.

Recent years have also seen an uptick in maritime tensions, including the Reed Bank incident (2019), which saw a suspected Chinese maritime militia sinking a Filipino fishing vessel, and the 2021 Whitsun Reef incident (2021), when an armada of Chinese paramilitary forces surrounded a Philippine-claimed area in the Spratlys.

Most recently, the Philippine Coast Guard also revealed constant harassment, including near-collisions on at least four occasions with Chinese forces patrolling the Scarborough Shoal. The Philippines has formally protested China’s alleged harassment of its coast guard patrols amid an uptick in anti-Beijing sentiments in the Southeast Asian country.

By and large, Duterte’s strategic flirtation with China has not only failed to produce any major breakthrough, but it may have even emboldened the Asian powerhouse to press its claims across Philippine waters.

Instead of “debt trap” diplomacy, Duterte, a geopolitical neophyte, fell into China’s “pledge trap” by forward-deploying strategic concessions in exchange for broadly illusory investment pledges.

Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo" AFP/Mark R. Cristino/Pool
Chinese President Xi Jinping (L) gestures as Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte (R) looks on during a state banquet at the Malacanang Presidential Palace in Manila on November 20, 2018. Photo: AFP / Mark R Cristino / Pool

Contrary to common opinion, Duterte’s pivot to China was initially popular. While it’s true that a majority of Filipinos have held favorable views towards Washington, a large plurality of respondents in a 2017 poll expressed doubts about America’s reliability amid the South China Sea disputes. Meanwhile, the same poll, conducted by Pulse Asia, a local pollster, revealed that close to half of Filipinos (47%) welcomed warmer defense and strategic ties with China and Russia.

According to the Pew Research Center, the number of Filipinos preferring engagement over confrontation with Beijing dramatically increased from 43% in 2015 to a steady majority of 67% in 2017. In the same survey, a majority of Filipinos also expressed confidence in China’s leadership. By cleverly couching acquiescence as strategic pragmatism, Duterte prevented any major backlash following his call for a “soft landing” with Beijing in the South China Sea.

Eager to be in China’s good graces, Duterte initially suspended massive war games with America, nixed plans for joint Philippine-US patrols in the South China Sea, blocked the full implementation of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), and even threatened to terminate his country’s century-old alliance with Washington. Amid disagreements over human rights issues, Duterte went so far as to unilaterally nix, at least temporarily, the Philippine-US Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) in 2020.

Emboldened by Duterte’s overtures, China pressed its luck by dangling joint development agreements with the Philippines in the South China Sea. Meanwhile, Beijing continued its militarization of disputed land features in the Spratly group of islands, conducted large-scale naval drills in the area and deployed an ever-larger armada of para-military and coast guard forces to intimidate Philippine vessels in the area.

Almost halfway into Duterte’s presidency, however, it also became clear that China’s promises of large-scale investments were largely illusory. Top economic managers and technocrats openly complained about delays in Chinese projects, while Beijing kept on pressing for more concessions from the Philippines, including a proposed joint development agreement well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

During his late-2018 visit to Manila, Chinese President Xi Jinping was left broadly disappointed when the two sides failed to finalize any concrete resource-sharing agreement in the South China Sea. The Chinese leader was reportedly led on by his Philippine-based envoy, who underappreciated growing domestic opposition to Duterte’s pivot to Beijing.

While senior Filipino diplomats resisted any potentially compromising resource-sharing deal with China, which could violate both the Philippine constitution as well as the 2016 arbitral tribunal award, the US-trained Philippine military at the same time shunned any major defense deal with the Asian powerhouse.

Soon, Beijing even began to criticize Duterte’s promotion of notorious Chinese online casinos, which had allegedly served as dens of criminal activity and, accordingly, were banned in the mainland. Bilateral tensions, however, reached new heights when a suspected Chinese militia vessel rammed into a Filipino fishing boat in the Reed Bank, a resource-rich area that is also claimed by Beijing.

This photo taken by the Philippine Coast Guard shows Chinese vessels anchored at the Whitsun Reef 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza in Palawan in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP

Eager to prevent a breakdown in bilateral relations, however, Duterte chose to downplay the incident and instead echo China’s dismissive stance on the crisis, which enraged much of the Filipino public. Confident of Duterte’s acquiescence, China further expanded its footprint in the disputed areas during the Covid-19 pandemic, most notably deploying an armada of paramilitary vessels to the Philippine-claimed Whitsun Reef.

Cognizant of the Philippines’ vulnerability and eager to dampen doubts on American reliability, the Trump and Biden administration upped the ante by publicly clarifying that the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty can be activated against any hostile third party in the South China Sea.

Peeved by China’s constant harassment of Filipino fishermen and the absence of any major infrastructure investment by the Asian powerhouse, a vast majority of the Philippine public called on their government to take a tougher stance in the South China Sea. In recent years, China’s net trust rating among Filipinos fell to a nadir of -33%.

Under growing domestic pressure, Duterte publicly chastized China’s aggressive actions during the 2021 China-ASEAN Summit. The Filipino president went so far as to state how he “abhors” the alleged harassment of Philippine warships and fishermen in the South China Sea, warning China that “[t]his does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership.”

The leader made it clear that his country will “fully utilize…legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity.”

Duterte’s 11th-hour rhetorical turnabout, no doubt with his foreign policy legacy in mind, has been too little, too late. According to US Indo-Pacific commander Admiral. John Aquilino, China has recently effectively finalized the militarization of numerous disputed land features in the South China Sea.

“The function of those islands is to expand the offensive capability of [China] beyond their continental shores,” he said, referring to China’s construction of military facilities such as radar systems, aircraft hangars and missile arsenals across Subi Reef, Fiery Cross, and Mischief Reef.

“They can fly fighters, bombers plus all those offensive capabilities of missile systems,” he added, referring to China’s massive artificial islands and sprawling network of military bases at the heart of the South China Sea.

“So that’s the threat that exists, that’s why it’s so concerning for the militarization of these islands,” the US admiral added, warning “[t]hey threaten all nations who operate in the vicinity and all the international sea and airspace.”

Meanwhile, the Philippines filed a diplomatic protest following reports by the Philippine Coast Guard of several near-collisions with aggressively maneuvering Chinese coast guard vessels.

Filipino activists march towards the Chinese consulate for a protest in Manila on February 10, 2018, against Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP / Ted Aljibe

“We are fully aware of dangerous situations at sea, but these will not stop our deployment of assets and personnel [to protect our fishermen in the area].” Philippine coast guard chief Admiral Artemio Abu said in a statement, remaining defiant in face of China. “As long as they [Filipino fishermen] feel safe seeing us during their fishing operations, we know that we are doing our job well.”

Aware of growing anti-China sentiments among ordinary Filipinos, even Beijing-friendly presidential candidates such as Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who is currently leading in all pre-election surveys, have had to take a tougher stance on the South China Sea disputes.

While openly backing Duterte’s friendly diplomacy with China in the past,  the ex-dictator’s son has recently and notably adopted a more patriotic stance vis-a-vis China. In a recent presidential debate, Duterte’s most likely successor went so far as to underscore the need for “putting military presence” across disputed areas in the South China Sea to “show China that we are defending what we consider [as] our territorial waters.”

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @richeydarian