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Rodrigo Duterte’s Pivot to China

President Rodrigo Duterte and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping shake hands prior to their bilateral meetings at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20. (King Rodriguez/PPD)

President Rodrigo Duterte and People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping shake hands prior to their bilateral meetings at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on October 20. (King Rodriguez/PPD)

Diplomatic relations between the People’s Republic of China and the Philippines have been especially sour ever since China claimed Scarborough Shoal in 2012. But now, Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte is exploring a new bilateral relationship with China, effectively conceding that territorial issue in the interests of setting a more independent foreign policy course in the region, much to the consternation of the United State, which regards Duterte as a loose cannon.

Duterte, for his part, has long distrusted Washington for a variety of reasons, and sees China as a bargaining chip in his contest of wills with the U.S. and local elites opposed to his rule.

Duterte selected China as the destination of his first state visit. This symbolic move received a warm welcome from China, as the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines, Zhao Jianhua implied, “The Clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations. To make this even clearer, Beijing offered the Filipino delegation a $9 billion loan during the course of its recent visit.

Duterte’s four-day state visit held a full schedule. Mr. Duterte held meetings on separate occasions with President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, and the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. He also attended the opening ceremony of the China-Philippines Economic Trade Forum together with Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli.

Is Mr. Duterte trying to end the alliance with America? Not necessarily. Although he has insulted American officials on multiple occasions, including telling President Obama to “Go to Hell”, and calling him a “son of a whore”, it is unlikely that he will abandon this longtime defense ally, a nation that also has longstanding economic ties to the country and is home to a large population of Filipino expatriates.

As Duterte’s Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay noted, “The president, on many occasions, has said categorically that he will only have one military alliance, and our only ally in that respect is the United States”. Officials such as Yasay have often found themselves trying to walk back their boss’s remarks since he took office.

“Only China can help us,” Duterte said during an interview with Xinhua News. And he truly believes that mending relationships with China is the right choice for his country. As much as it is about flexibility and breaking with the past, the animosity he feels towards the United States is real.

Business partners

“We want to talk about friendship, we want to talk about cooperation, and most of all, we want to talk about business.”

The United States remains the largest source of foreign investment for the Philippines. With a total net flow of investment of $4.2 billion, U.S. investment to Philippines dwarfed the number from China ($0.05 billion) from 2005 to July 2016. Currently, this Southeast Asian country receives around $170 million aid from Washington annually. Yet this figure is nothing close to what U.S. has fund its strategic alliances elsewhere: Egypt and Pakistan each receives annual funding of $1.5 billion each.

This October, the U.S., the EU, and other Western investors put projects on hold in reactions to Duterte’s controversial “war on drugs”, in which killed more than 3,500 suspects within months. Several investment and trade missions from the U.S. and the EU were aborted, meaning there will hardly be any new business deals made in the near future.

The economic future for the Philippines is not promising under such circumstances. Unwilling to temper his campaign—modelled after his mayoral policies in Davao City that sharply reduced the crime rate while imposing draconian punishments on offenders—Mr. Duterte has good reasons to turn to China, one of the largest business partners for other ASEAN countries and one which is not going to harry him with diplomatic protests or human rights inquiries over his “war on drugs”.

While Beijing of course expects its payments to have real returns and not mere “goodwill” value, and also knows it too does not benefit from the island nation’s instability in the long run, the breaches in Manila’s Western diplomatic relations are too good opportunities to ignore.

Together with more than 200 business representatives, Mr. Duterte is hoping to boost Philippines economy with help from China and so far he has not been disappointed. China has promised to bring Philippines on board to its “one belt, one road” economic development project in Southeast Asia. Specifically, this visit to Beijing will bring 13 trade agreements with China, with total worth of $31.5 billion, back to Manila. Agreements of these trade deals included foreign direct investments on infrastructure, expanding Chinese tourism in the Philippines, and lifting previous import restrictions on the country’s agricultural and fishing products.

South China Sea

“There is no sense fighting over a body of water. It is better to talk than war.”

Relations, never very warm, worsened between the two countries after Beijing took claim of the Scarborough Shoal. Not only sending regular patrols in the troubled water, Beijing has also been building artificial islands for military purposes. The former president, Benigno Aquino III, allowed for a large U.S. military presence in his country expecting to counter China’s aggressive behaviors and to eliminate domestic insurgents. He brought the Scarborough Shoal case to the international tribunal at the Hague during his presidency, which ruled in favor of Philippines this July. In retaliation, Beijing put a ban on importing Philippine’s agricultural products, now lifted with the warming of ties under Aquino’s successor, Duterte.

Territorial claims over South China Sea. (Wall Street Journal)

Territorial claims over South China Sea. (Wall Street Journal)

Ironically, the Chinese government also warned its citizens to not travel to Philippines for its “unstable political environment”, a warning it is apparently less worried over now despite the rising body count in the “war on drugs” and continued disturbances by domestic insurgents, including the terrorist group Abu Sayyaf.

Unlike his processors, Mr. Duterte does not believe that U.S. will be the solution for the geopolitical disputes. Personal histories of him make quite clear he distrusts the U.S. for historical, personal, and political reasons. Historic, over the US’s colonial rule of his homeland, and then support for the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship as well as the Vietnam and Iraq wars. Personal, in his negative experiences with U.S. nationals over the years and suspicion that the Americans went out of their way to protect their own at his and Davao City’s expense.

But political, perhaps, is the most influential one. As a man outside the islands’ traditional power structure for much of his career, he sees—reasonably so—people like the Aquinos, Marcoses, and the top police or army brass as aloof bureaucrats who long ignored the intercommunal violence plaguing the country while currying American patronage. In his interview with the Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, he told the host that he and his cabinet are not optimistic about the U.S. to keep collective defense obligations. He is also considering abolishing the joint-military exercise in South China Sea with the US, indicating such actions would only “further provoke China” and “there is no need to intensify the situation”.

In response, Beijing rolled out red carpet. Chinese spokesperson Hua Chunying commented, “Duterte would make his policy in the best interests of his country and its people”.

Despite the friendly gestures he has made to China, Duterte knows where to draw the line of this negotiation. He reiterated that there is no bargaining room on the sovereignty of the disputed islands. “We will not give up anything there … You can only negotiate to prevent a war”, he told Al Jazeera in an interview before to his China visit.

However, Mr. Duterte still plans to set back the Hague ruling and start to build mutual trust on joint development of the natural resources in the region with China. Some small but significant progress was seen after the dialogue opened up. Discussion of bilateral fishery cooperation in the South China Sea is taking place and Beijing publicly announced its willingness to make arrangements to strengthen this partnership.

President Duterte has, for all his bombast against his allies, be savvy enough to send an olive branch to China to try and soften the tension between these two Asian neighbors as well while trying to shift course away from the U.S. For him, it is better to solve an Asian geopolitical problem with “no foreign forces”, only “an Asian neighbor to another”.



Wenjun Zeng

Wenjun Zeng is a Chinese national focusing on the regional security and trust-building in the Asia-Pacific. She has worked with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and U.S. diplomats and scholars to create Track II dialogue platforms on Asia-Pacific security issues. She is also an analyst at Wikistrat, a crowdsourced consultancy that identifies and provides solutions to global risks.

Wenjun earned her Bachelor in Arts degree in Psychology and International Studies from University of Wisconsin-Madison, and her Master of Arts degree in Politics from New York University.