Under President Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines is seen by many as China’s newest best friend. After all, the Philippine leader has demolished the country’s years-long role as the vortex of resistance against China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, while simultaneously downgrading security cooperation with the United States—its treaty ally.
In an abrupt break from his predecessor Benigno Aquino’s policy, Duterte has effectively “set aside” the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award against China in the South China in pursuit of warmer ties with Beijing. Unlike any Philippine leader in history, he has lavished China with praise, openly expressing his “love” for Xi Jinping, described them as the Philippines’ “protector”, and brazenly called on smaller countries to be “meek” and “humble” in exchange for China’s “mercy”.
Duterte does not speak for all of the Philippines, however, and behind his bluster, alternative centers of powers have been contesting, altering and frustrating the push for a pro-China foreign policy. In particular, the Philippine defense establishment has managed to preserve the foundations of its full-spectrum military cooperation with Washington, while continuing to monitor and oppose China’s creeping presence across Philippine-claimed waters.
China’s New Best Friend
At first, the Duterte administration adopted a largely sensible policy of strategic diversification, reopening communications channels with China and reducing its dependence on traditional alliances. In effect, the Philippines began to adopt an equilateral balancing strategy, not too dissimilar from the hedging approach of fellow South China Sea claimant states Vietnam and Malaysia.
For Duterte, an “independent” foreign policy meant maintaining good relations with all major nations and not siding with any major power against another. With respect to China, the Duterte administration was intent on ensuring the disputes in the South China Sea didn’t define the texture of overall bilateral relations.
He saw China as a crucial partner for national development amid hopes of bringing modern infrastructure to the Philippines’ peripheries, especially his home island of Mindanao. The problem arose when Duterte abandoned this sensible approach in response to Western criticism of his respect for human rights, a consequence of his scorched-earth drug war which has reportedly claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers.
Sensing the growing gulf between Duterte and traditional Western partners, China deftly presented itself as a reliable strategic patron, providing full diplomatic support to the controversial drug war in multilateral fora, especially at the United Nations Human Rights Council, and offering to build large drug rehabilitation centers in the Philippines.
China’s charm offensive paid off handsomely, as Duterte leveraged his 2017 chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to shield Beijing from criticism of its coercive activities in the South China Sea.
To China’s delight, he told external powers that the South China Sea disputes are “better left untouched”, while declining to raise the Philippines’ arbitration award in any multilateral fora. His strategic flirtation with China reached its apotheosis when he went so far as to quip about the Philippines becoming a “province of China”.
More troublingly, the Philippine president has seemingly also given a green light to China to expand its military access to Davao’s airbase and ports, despite the absence of any formal defense agreement between the two neighbors.
The Duterte administration has also pushed for Joint Development Agreements in the South China Sea, even if this could lead to legitimization of China’s “nine-dashed-line” claims that were rejected by the arbitral tribunal ruling at The Hague in 2016. In effect, Duterte is risking not only violating the Philippines’ own constitution, which prohibits joint development agreements within the country’s exclusive economic zone, but also trashing the arbitration award.
Duterte’s overt tilt towards China, however, has unleashed widespread backlash. The defense establishment, prominent statesmen, the media-intelligentsia complex, civil society groups, and broader public have all expressed opposition to the government’s soft-pedaling on China.
No less than Vice President Leni Robredo and acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Antonio Carpio have led the charge in rallying the public against Duterte’s South China Sea policy. And in more recent days, former president Aquino himself has stepped into the fray, criticizing his successor for supposedly abandoning the country’s claims in the area.
Mainstream media outlets as well as prominent opinion-makers have consistently underscored China’s threat to Philippine interests in the area, while cautioning against large-scale Chinese investments amid concerns over a possible “debt trap”. To Duterte’s disappointment, China has yet to make a single big-ticket Chinese infrastructure investment in the Philippines.
Leading surveys also show 73 percent of Filipinos want the president to assert the Philippines’ sovereign rights against China based on the 2016 arbitral tribunal ruling, while almost 9 out of 10 want him to retake control of Chinese-occupied islands in the South China Sea like Scarborough Shoal and Mischief Reef.
Public perceptions of China remain largely negative, with Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen in the Scarborough Shoal, among other examples, serving as a regular source of grievance and animosity among the general public.
Most crucial, however, is the resistance by the Armed Forces of the Philippines, which has underscored its “constitutional duties” to protect the country’s sovereign rights and territorial integrity in the South China Sea, openly called on the government to take a tougher stance on the disputes, and, in some instances, has leaked information about Chinese threats to Philippine sovereignty to the media and members of the opposition in order to publicize them.
The defense establishment has also gradually revived defense cooperation with Washington, expanding the number of participants in the annual Philippine-U.S. Balikatan joint exercises (from 5,000 to 8,000) as well as restoring joint wargames with the United States in the South China Sea this year.
The upshot is a highly contested foreign policy, with the Duterte administration often forced to recalibrate its friendly approach towards China to stave off domestic backlash.
It is precisely within this context that we should understand Duterte’s change of tone on China in recent weeks, arguing that the Asian powerhouse “cannot just create islands there and claim the sea” and admonishing Beijing for its “nasty words” and harassment of Philippine aerial patrols in the South China Sea.
Though still relatively popular, Duterte has yet to achieve sufficient power to unilaterally decide the country’s South China Sea policy. If China were to cross certain “red lines”, Duterte would most likely be forced, similarly to Aquino after the Scarborough Shoal crisis, to reconsider its rapprochement with Beijing.