Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping before their meeting at the Great Hall of People in Beijing on April 25, 2019. (Photo: Kenzaburo FUKUHARA / POOL / AFP)

The Future of Duterte’s Pivot to China: A Non-Defeatist Approach

Published

Duterte’s China pivot is at a crossroads. The upcoming May polls will give the leading presidential candidates some room to rethink the country’s China policy.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s pivot to China rests on a crucial understanding that the country is better off extracting gains from an improved bilateral partnership with China, as opposed to maintaining an assertive position in the West Philippine Sea (and by extension, a stronger alliance with the country’s long-standing ally, the United States). As Duterte has proclaimed in various instances, Beijing remains a reliable partner yet at the same time a prospective opponent that the Philippines will never be able to thwart.

But with less than a year remaining in his term, Duterte’s China policy can hardly be called a success, given increased public dissatisfaction with the policy and less than ideal deliverables from China. His foreign policy gambit will certainly be a main point of scrutiny in next year’s elections, and voters ought to pay attention.

Determined to have more amicable relations towards China, President Duterte declared early on that he would set aside the landmark 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration Award, which had ruled in favour of Manila,  to build goodwill with Beijing. The Duterte administration focused on securing various pledges to deepen cooperation between the two countries. By 2018, it was reported that his government was able to secure US$9 billion worth of development assistance pledges for about 40 government-to-government infrastructure projects. And when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country, the country turned to China for much needed medical supplies such as personal protective equipment and testing kits. Sinovac, a China-made vaccine, was not only the first vaccine to arrive in the country, but it also continues to be the top source for the government’s vaccination programme.

The focus on obtaining economic gains from a more cordial China policy benefitted the country in some ways. The average number of visitors from China increased from 332,268 visitors during the previous Aquino administration (2010-2015), to more than thrice this number (1.16 million) during the first half of the Duterte administration (2016-2019). Similarly, Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) grew significantly under Duterte, with the average number of firms endowed with Chinese FDI  increasing from around 600 to 1,257 firms just two years into Duterte’s term.

Yet despite the economic benefits and overall deepening of bilateral relations, Filipino public opinion has barely warmed up to China. Trust ratings towards China have consistently remained negative, in stark contrast to the high trust ratings towards the United States. Likewise, a survey also found that a plurality of Filipinos believe that the government ‘is not doing enough to assert its rights to the country’s territories in the West Philippine Sea’.

With less than a year remaining in Duterte’s term, the majority of the investment pledges and agreements made earlier in his tenure have yet to fully materialise. As of 2020, total Official Development Assistance (ODA) from China stood at US$620.74 million, far from the development assistance pledges amounting to US$9 billion. The figure constitutes just two per cent of the country’s total ODA. Meanwhile, China continues to maintain its significant presence in the West Philippine Sea through its maritime militias despite several diplomatic protests filed by the Philippines. These developments lead one to wonder if the government is being shortchanged by China.

Leading presidential candidates have candidly expressed how they would chart a different course from Duterte’s accommodation of China, albeit still taking a cautious position to continue economic engagement with Beijing.

Senator Manny Pacquiao’s has criticised Duterte’s China policy as ‘lacking’ compared to the harder line he took against Beijing during his campaign for president. According to Pacquiao, the president should have sought to gain more respect from Beijing. The views of the former boxer have led to contention within PDP-Laban, the party of Duterte (Pacquiao is the party’s acting president).

Manila Mayor Isko Moreno and Senator Panfilo Lacson have emphasised the need to reinvigorate the country’s alliance with the United States, which Duterte has alienated. Opposition leader and vice president Leni Robredo, who has long been critical of Duterte’s defeatist policy towards China, has consistently maintained that China must recognise the 2016 Arbitral Award; that said, she is also pushing for principled economic cooperation. And at the other end of the spectrum, Senator Bong Go, and Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., son of the late dictator, would likely continue Duterte’s policy direction. Sara Duterte, the mayor of Davao City and daughter of the president, is also likely to follow in her father’s footsteps with regard to China. She is currently running as the vice-presidential candidate under the Marcos ticket; but some analysts see her bidding for the country’s highest office.

Leading presidential candidates have candidly expressed how they would chart a different course from Duterte’s accommodation of China, albeit still taking a cautious position to continue economic engagement with Beijing.

It is clear that voters have been notably dissatisfied with Duterte’s overall approach towards China. They are cognizant of Duterte’s failed campaign promise to ride a jet ski to the West Philippine Sea to challenge China. They have always longed for a non-defeatist approach towards China. There is certainly a disconnect between sentiment on the ground and Duterte’s position towards China. This shows how foreign policy issues tend to be overwhelmed by other issues and dynamics come election season. 

The 2022 elections provide Filipinos with an opportunity to seriously talk about the country’s overall foreign policy agenda and demand a more sober China policy that truly reflects their preference for a non-defeatist approach. This approach recognises the need to engage China constructively in all areas of cooperation, and the need to wholeheartedly assert the country’s legal rights as stipulated in the PCA ruling (with the backing of the US).

To his credit, Duterte has already hinted at what such a non-defeatist approach could be: on 30 July, he made a U-turn by restoring the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement with Washington, after vowing to terminate the pact which allows for the rotation of US troops in and out of the country. A strong alliance with the US and engagement with China need not be mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is high time that the country’s China policy becomes a real election issue.

2021/280