Chinese president Xi Jinping’s historic state visit to the Philippines, the first by a top Chinese leader in more than a decade, marked the culmination of an ongoing rapprochement between the two neighbors. Despite high expectations, however, the Chinese leader’s visit failed to achieve any major breakthroughs. There was neither a firm resource-sharing agreement in the South China Sea nor any major announcement on the backlog of big-ticket Chinese infrastructure investments.
With little to show for his China-courting gambit, Duterte has come under growing pressure to reexamine his foreign policy calculus, especially ahead of a crucial midterm election next year that will serve as a referendum on his populist presidency.
Rainbow After Rain
In a region growing skeptical of Beijing’s overtures, the Philippines has emerged as an outlier, an island of rare optimism over its burgeoning bilateral relations with China.
Since coming to power in 2016, the Filipino leader has effectively toed the Chinese line on the South China Sea disputes. He has refused to raise the Philippines’ landmark arbitration award ruling against China, has described the situation in the disputed waters as generally “stable”, described ASEAN-China relations as “excellent”, and rarely criticizes Beijing’s relentless militarization of reclaimed islands in the area.
Operationally, Duterte has also blocked U.S. warships from using Philippine ports en route for freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea. He has also rejected U.S. requests to preposition equipment and develop critical bases close to the disputed waters identified under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
To China’s delight, this has somewhat hampered U.S. deterrence efforts against Chinese maritime assertiveness in the area. Duterte has also granted China unprecedented military access to airbases and ports in his hometown of Davao in the past year. The two countries are also exploring tighter security cooperation, a $500 million defense deal, and recently held their largest joint naval drills off the coast of Chinese province of Zhanjiang.No wonder then, ahead of his visit to Manila, Xi Jinping triumphantly wrote, in an-op carried by Xinhua news agency, that bilateral relations have experienced a “rainbow after the rain”.
During Xi’s visit, both sides agreed to elevate their relations to a strategic partnership, with Xi announcing an agreement to “chart a clear course for China-Philippines relations” for the future, which “sends a strong message to the world that our two countries are partners in seeking common development.” He also made it clear that China “will continue to do its modest best to help and support the Philippines.”
And yet, of the 29 deals signed between the two countries, there was hardly any indication that China will expedite its multi-billion-dollar pledges of infrastructure investment in the Philippines. Almost all of the signed deals were vague, non-binding agreements on pre-identified projects. So far, among the 10 proposed big-ticket Chinese infrastructure projects, only 1, the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project, worth around $60 million, has passed the preliminary stages of implementation.
And frustration seems to be building up, with outspoken Philippine budget secretary Benjamin Diokno openly lamenting the need for Xi to “put pressure on the speed of implementation of all these [promised] projects.”
Months after Duterte suggested “co-ownership” of resources in disputed areas of the South China Sea, the two sides also failed to secure even a framework of a joint exploration agreement for potential energy resources. Instead, they only signed a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas development. There was no specifications on where the potential projects would be.
The deadlock in negotiations is likely due to mounting domestic opposition, including from within the Philippine government bureaucracy, to any controversial and potentially illegal resource-sharing agreement with China. No less than newly minted Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin proudly announced his pushback against “forces [who were] saying we should come to an understanding” with China, even if it meant compromising the Philippines’ sovereign rights.
In short, the two sides are only exploring the possibility of a joint-exploration deal, let alone a full-fledged joint development agreement in the area.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which remains heavily skeptical of China, reportedly also rejected a Chinese proposal for a Maritime and Air Liaison Mechanism in overlapping areas of claim in the South China Sea, according to sources privy to discussions. For them, any such agreement would indirectly legitimize China’s claims in the Philippine-claimed Spratly chain of islands.
Shortly after Xi’s departure, key statesmen also aired their explicit opposition to any major compromise with China. Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio, at the time the acting chief justice, warned that any joint exploration or joint development deal with China in overlapping areas of claims would be unconstitutional, and went so far as to call China’s creeping maritime expansion the “gravest external threat [to the Philippines] since World War II.”
Ahead of midterm elections, prominent politicians have also been more openly critical of closer ties with China. The latest surveys suggest that the vast majority of Filipinos are skeptical of China and would prefer Duterte take a tougher stance in the South China Sea disputes.
The Senate has been conducting several investigations into the reported influx of illegal Chinese workers, proliferation of Chinese-run online casinos, and potential entry of state-run China Telecom into the Philippines’ telecommunications market. Prominent legislators such as Senator Grace Poe have openly raised national security concerns over a deluge of Chinese technology, capital and workers.
Far from falling into a Chinese orbit of influence, the Philippines is still in the midst of an intense internal debate over the future of its bilateral relations with Beijing. Crucially, there is deep opposition to any major compromise with Beijing in the South China Sea as well as skepticism vis-à-vis large-scale Chinese investments.
Thus, it’s important for key allies such as Washington, Tokyo, and Brussels to 1) make it clear that any modus vivendi in the disputed areas shouldn’t legitimize China’s excessive claims that were refuted by the 2016 arbitration award at The Hague; 2) uphold basic principles of international law, including freedom of navigation and overflight; and 3) respect the sovereign rights and interests of all claimant states.
Aside from raising concerns over China’s rising economic influence, it’s also important for key allies to provide more transparent and sustainable investment alternatives. There is deep appetite across the Philippines for maintaining robust strategic and economic relations with the West and Japan to keep China at bay.
Instead of solidifying bilateral ties, Xi’s visit seem to have only exposed internal fault lines and widespread skepticism in the Philippines over Duterte’s strategic flirtation with Beijing.