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Philippine President Struggles to Prove Pro-China Gains

President Rodrigo Duterte is still struggling to prove that his country has benefited from being China’s ally four years later.

In 2016, the Philippines made a drastic shift in its foreign policy. Its President declared the country’s “separation” from the US, its military ally, and made closer ties with China.

Among other things, the Philippines also set aside its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea. In exchange for billions of dollars, China pledged to invest in infrastructure.

However, China has not materialized the promised investment with some projects delayed or shelved. Now, the anti-Chinese rhetoric is growing louder within President Duterte’s government and the public.

Therefore, on all counts, Duterte faces accusations of abasing himself before China and got nothing for it.

According to Greg Poling, China launched just two projects- a bridge and an irrigation project, but both hit a major snag that could scuttle them.

Greg Poling is a senior fellow for Southeast Asia. He is also a director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies.

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Rising domestic political pressure

Most of the Philippine public does not share Duterte’s re-conciliatory approach towards China. The public continues to view other global and regional powers more favorable.

Pollster Social Weather Stations carried out a survey, and in July, the survey found that Filipinos trusted the US and Australia more than China.

Notably, their trust in China was worse compared to the same survey conducted in December last year.

Their deterioration in public sentiments against China coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic ravaged the Philippine economy and China’s continued aggression in the South China Sea, where the two countries have overlapping territorial interests.

According to Peter Mumford, all the increased domestic pressure is on Duterte to re-calibrate his pivot to China. Mumford is the practice head for Southeast and South Asia at Eurasia Group.

Foreign Policy Moves by Duterte

In the recent months, the Philippines made several foreign policy moves against China that analysts said was noteworthy from Duterte’s government.

In April, the Philippines’ foreign affairs department released a statement showing Vietnam’s solidarity. This was after the Chinese surveillance vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the South China Sea.

The department also released another statement in July. This was on the anniversary of an international tribunal ruling that dismissed nearly 90% of the South China Sea and called on China to comply with the verdict.

For years, China and the Philippines have clashed over competing interests in the resource-rich waterway where the annual global trade is in trillions of dollars.

The Southeast Asia country- under the former President Benigno Aquino III, took China to court.

In 2016, shortly after Duterte became the President, an international tribunal ruled that portions of both countries aimed to belong to the Philippines alone.

China ignored the ruling, and critics accuse Duterte of doing little to demand compliance from China.

Even while China-skeptic people writhing his government grew, analysts noted that Duterte stayed mostly silent.


Time is Running Out

Generally, criticism within Duterte’s cabinet does not signal an imminent shift in the administration’s stance towards China, Derek Aw said.

Derek Aw is a senior analyst at Control Risks.

Derek said such comments were deliberate attempts to placate domestic stakeholders such as the public and growing parts of the military that were skeptical about Duterte’s China policy.

The analyst said China was probing for weaknesses in the South China Sea.

He also added that ties between China and the Philippines would remain stable as long as Duterte was the President. He also said Durtete might sometimes turn to “nationalistic rhetoric” to help his preferred successor in the 2022 presidential election.

However, actions speak louder than words. Duterte’s government will continuously deepen its economic engagement with China and refuse to internationalize the South China Sea dispute, Derek said in an email.

But with less than two years remaining in his six-year term, Duterte is running out of time to get the economic results he wanted from China.

From the Eurasia Group, Mumford noted that despite the widely unfulfilled Chinese promises, Duterte argues that the Philippines is still better off in avoiding aggression with China, given the power asymmetry between them.

Nonetheless, Duterte is coming under increasing pressure to demonstrate the gains from China’s relations, Derek said.

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