Over the past few years, the Philippines has emerged as China’s most intransigent neighbor. In less than a decade, Filipino-Chinese relations went from a “golden age” to arguably Asia’s most toxic bilateral relationship. China has repeatedly characterized the Philippines as a “trouble maker,” while Filipino officials, like their counterparts in Washington, often equate China’s actions in disputed waters with “bullying.”

Most crucially, the Philippines is also the only country, so far, to have taken China to international court over the South China Sea disputes. To China’s consternation, the Philippines, under the newly-approved Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), has also granted greater basing access to U.S. forces, including facilities close to contested waters.

As the Philippines inches closer to electing a new leader, however, there is growing speculation that the country may take a radically different approach under President Benigno Aquino’s successor. Much will depend on who is elected the next Filipino president in May. But given the explosion in anti-China sentiment and attention to the South China Sea issue within the Philippines, as well as the negative legacy of the administration of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (2001-2010)—which was accused of having cut a corrupt deal with Beijing regarding the South China Sea—the next Filipino president will have limited room for any major foreign policy recalibration unless China offers tangible concessions and regains the good will of its estranged neighbor.

A Toxic Relationship

Bilateral relations actually did experience a short-lived “golden age” under the Arroyo administration, which negotiated a Joint Maritime Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) to explore for hydrocarbons in the South China Sea with Beijing and Hanoi. The Arroyo government, which adopted an equal balancing strategy toward all great powers, also welcomed massive Chinese infrastructure investment. But most of those landmark agreements resulted in corruption scandals and constitutional anomalies.

The Aquino administration, which ran on an anti-corruption platform, was naturally more circumspect in dealing with China. Yet, during his first two years in office, Aquino made various efforts to reach out to Beijing, ranging from his controversial decision to skip the Nobel Prize ceremony for Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo to his high-profile state visit to Beijing in 2011.

It was China’s rising territorial assertiveness, culminating in the seizure of Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012, which torpedoed bilateral relations. Still, Aquino planned to open communication channels with the newly-installed Xi Jinping administration on the sidelines of the 2013 China-ASEAN Expo in Nanning, only to be brusquely “disinvited” by the host country. Since then, relations have gone steadily downhill. In its final years in office, the Aquino administration largely eschewed engagement in favor of a more confrontational approach to Beijing, which has progressively tightened the noose around Filipino troops and fishermen traversing the South China Sea.

The current Philippine government sees no purpose in dialogue with China given Beijing’s commitment to pursue assert its “indisputable” sovereignty throughout the South China Sea. As a result, Presidents Xi and Aquino have not held a single formal summit, and in recent years the two countries have not agreed to any bilateral confidence-building measures or established hotlines between relevant agencies to manage incidents in contested waters. Meanwhile economic relations, particularly in terms of Chinese investment, have suffered dramatically.

The Successor 

 A cursory look at the presidential race suggests that it is too early to predict who will be the next president of the Philippines. The top four contenders—Senator Grace Poe, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, and Interior Secretary Mar Roxas—have been in a statistical dead heat according to polls. As a result, whoever does win the presidency is expected to do so with only a plurality of votes, though the latest surveys and developments suggest that Poe could pull away in the coming weeks.

For the first time in recent memory, foreign policy has become a key election issue. All the top candidates have confined their positions to vague, if generally nationalistic, statements without giving specifics. But based on their rhetoric and track records, it is unlikely that any of them, if elected, would adopt the same kind of incendiary language toward China as Aquino.

Binay has gone so far as to propose a joint development scheme with China in order to resolve the South China Sea disputes. But in light of the controversy over the legality of the Arroyo administration’s JMSU, and ongoing corruption investigations against the Binay, his family members, and close associates, his proposal has been met with heavy criticism and deep suspicion.

Duterte has offered a similar proposal—though saying that China would first have to accept Philippines claims—and declared his openness to direct dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Given his corruption-free and strongman image, he was not met with the same barrage of criticism as Binay. As pragmatists, Binay and Duterte have both consistently reiterated the significance of having robust economic relations with China. But tough-talking Duterte, who seems to have developed political anti-fragility, seems less vulnerable to accusations of corruption, being pro-China, or becoming an “Arroyo 2.0.”

Roxas and Poe, so far, have promised more continuity than departure from Aquino’s policies, though both have displayed their willingness to re-open high-level communication channels with China. In fact, Roxas was the last high-level Philippine official to have a direct meeting with Xi Jinping. With the exception of Duterte, the candidates have all largely supported ongoing efforts to enhance the Philippines’ military strength to achieve a minimum deterrence capability vis-à-vis China.

As for the EDCA, Binay and Duterte seem to be open to it, though Duterte has repeatedly expressed his frustrations with what he sees as a lack of American support in the South China Sea. Poe has opposed the agreement on procedural grounds, arguing that it needs ratification by the Philippine Senate. Roxas has been silent on the issue, but he is expected to continue Aquino’s efforts to upgrade Philippine security ties with major allies, particularly the United States and Japan.

Anti-China sentiment is at historic-highs among the Filipino public, which is carefully following the South China Sea disputes and is largely supportive of efforts to resist China’s maritime ambitions. This creates structural constraints on the ability of any president to radically reconfigure Philippine-China relations. But the next president will have some leverage in dealing with Beijing. He or she could renegotiate the parameters of the EDCA, which as an executive agreement is within the president’s purview, and also leverage the likely-favorable outcome of the Philippines’ arbitration case against China. But in the absence of any corresponding concessions from Beijing, the next Philippine president will not be able to depart from the status quo without risking political backlash at home.

Nonetheless, there is room for negotiation and confidence-building measures. China could end its siege of the Filipino detachment at Second Thomas Shoal; agree to a mutual disengagement from Scarborough Shoal; refrain from imposing an air defense identification or exclusion-zone in the Spratlys. In exchange, the Philippines could promise not to use the arbitration outcome as a propaganda tool against China.

Ultimately, the two sides could explore joint development and exploration schemes in contested waters. But that would require constitutional amendment in the Philippines, for which the next president will need a strong political mandate and a squeaky-clean image in order to maintain public support and be an effective advocate.

No matter who is elected, the road to improved bilateral relations will be bumpy and uncertain.

About Richard Javad Heydarian

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, and a policy adviser at the Philippine House of Representatives (2009-2015). He is the author of Asia’s New Battlefield: The US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.