“Winter has come to the Northern Hemisphere but the temperature in Manila is still running pretty high, and I think that somewhat reflects the temperature of Philippine-China relations,”1 said Chinese Premier Li Keqiang recently. This statement during his official visit to Manila after the 2017 ASEAN Summit in November is considered a fitting metaphor for the increasingly warm ties between the two countries.
Premier Li’s visit is considered to have concretized this significant improvement in the relationship through tangible agreements for functional cooperation. China has signed major deals with the Philippines in important areas for cooperation such as industrial parks development, defense industry, intellectual property, and environment and natural resources. In addition, the Chinese government has poured in million-dollar investments to fund the construction of much-needed dams, railways, expressways, and inter-island bridges in the Philippines, as well as provided an RMB 150 million (about USD 23 million) grant for the recovery and reconstruction efforts in the war-torn city of Marawi in Mindanao after it was liberated from the Maute-ISIS terrorist group. Such grants and investments indicate how China capitalizes on its growing economic clout to push for more positive engagement with the Philippines.
China Scores Political Goodwill
But what is notable in China’s recent generosity towards the country is that it has diversified its grants and assistance to gain political goodwill from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. While China focuses on infrastructure development as a staple in its overseas investment portfolio (in line with its much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative), it has also provided financial assistance in combating illegal drugs in the Philippines. Currently, the Chinese government is involved in the construction of four mega drug rehabilitation and treatment centers in the country, and has offered to fund projects to fight the proliferation of illegal drugs under the law enforcement security cooperation with the Philippines.
Such endeavors to support a well-known personal advocacy of Duterte have proven to be effective in winning political goodwill. According to Duterte, “China is the only country to come out freely with a firm statement that they are supporting the fight against drugs in my country.”2 He believes that China understands his government’s efforts to eliminate illegal drugs and is doing something to help, while the United States and the European Union have only criticized the drug war. Duterte’s positive perception of China is expected to result in the continued stability in the bilateral relations, at least during his term.
Philippines Downplays Maritime Concerns
But while Duterte has loudly praised China’s assistance in his war on drugs, he is strategically mum about its military activities in the South China Sea, which is particularly evident during the 2017 ASEAN chairmanship of the Philippines. The chairman’s statement avoided any reference to China’s ongoing reclamation activities in the area. Most importantly, there has been no mention of the Hague ruling favoring the Philippines, which declared that China has no legal basis to claim historic rights over the South China Sea.
Duterte claims: “We never surrendered anything. Just saying that I do not want to talk about this at the moment … The South China Sea is better left untouched. Nobody can afford to go to war.”
As the ASEAN chair, the Philippines under Duterte had been expected to boldly push for a stronger stance in addressing this issue, in the same manner that Duterte had brazenly defended his anti-narcotics campaign against international critics. Unfortunately, while he is hardnosed about his “war on drugs,” Duterte is soft-pedaling on conflicts in the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ “Hits and Misses” during ASEAN
The exclusion of the issue in the chairman’s statement is considered a “missed opportunity” for the Philippines. The country could have taken advantage of its chairmanship in leading the organization to address China’s activities in the South China Sea which have caused anxiety among fellow claimant states. This is in contrast to the Philippines’ active lobbying in ASEAN to restrain China from any contentious activities in the South China Sea during the administration of former President Benigno Aquino III. By downplaying this maritime issue during its chairmanship, the Philippines is perceived to have wasted a golden chance in promoting the rule of law after it won its arbitration case against China, which in effect undermined the organization’s position. According to Gregory Poling, Executive director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “it also significantly weakened ASEAN's standing on political-security matters.”3
Although the 2017 ASEAN Summit highlighted the announcement of the start of the negotiations on the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea, the Philippines cannot boast about what seems to be a major diplomatic milestone. The COC framework is regarded merely as a reiteration of the general principles of the 2002 Declaration of the Code of Conduct (DOC) and the 2011 Guidelines on the Implementation of the DOC, both of which excluded any provisions for enforcement mechanisms in cases of violation. For Jay Batongbacal, Director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, the one-page framework is merely a “procedural agreement” without a set timeframe and venue for discussions on a final COC.4
The Philippines’ Pragmatic Priority: Economic Needs over Security Matters
As the Philippines reaps increasing economic benefits from China with its more lenient stance on the South China Sea, there is suspicion that the Duterte administration is “selling out” the country’s maritime claims in exchange for Chinese aid and investments. While the positive developments in the bilateral relations suggest such, Duterte claims otherwise: “We never surrendered anything. Just saying that I do not want to talk about this at the moment … The South China Sea is better left untouched. Nobody can afford to go to war.”5 His statement suggests that he is adopting a “strategic silence” regarding the South China Sea issue for an “indefinite” time, and this apparently comes with a price tag.
Evidently, this reveals Duterte’s calculating and pragmatic policy to rejuvenate positive relations with the Chinese government, as China consolidates its economic clout and military strength in the region. For Duterte, it is better for the Philippines to gain as much economic concessions from China as possible, rather than be trapped in a political deadlock by pushing for its maritime claims that will not be permanently resolved. It is better for the Philippines not to flaunt its arbitration victory that is hard to implement, and be better off securing much-needed financial benefits and direct investments from China. In Duterte’s perception, it is better for the Philippines to stand in the good graces of a powerful China and profit from it, rather than be the target of its wrath.
By focusing on the immediate development needs of the country and shelving any future action plans on its maritime claims, this shrewd tactic of Duterte is considered logical. “We have so many problems domestic to take care of before we start to venture into some sort of aggressive stand,”6 said Duterte. However, as the president downplays the Philippines’ maritime claims and legal victory to gain economic rewards from China, it remains to be seen whether this policy will eventually do the country good in the long term.
China’s Diplomatic Strategy: A Win-Win Position
While the Philippines has to minimize its maritime claims in order to maximize some economic benefits, China in contrast enjoys a win-win situation where it is able to push for both its trade interests and security agenda. As it gradually consolidates its power, the Chinese government is employing its “assertive benevolence” to promote its economic interests in the Philippines and at the same time suppress any succeeding opposition from the country regarding its territorial assertions in the South China Sea.
It is also important to note that China’s much-touted goodwill towards the Philippines and the rest of the region hinges on its bilateral relations. As Premier Li indicated, the increase or decrease in the “political temperature” is very important. For President Duterte, it is critical to maintain the warm temperature in Philippines-China relations for as long as he can, and not allow it to freeze again. As China presently benefits from this newly “thawed” relation, there is uncertainty and anxiety for the Philippines over the future costs of this warm reception.
1. Mendez, C. and Romero, A. (2017, November 16). Philippine-China ties as warm as Manila weather- Li. The Philippine Star. Retrieved from www.philstar.com
2. Revita, J. (2016, October 19). Duterte: Only China backs my drug war. Sun Star. Retrieved from www.sunstar.com.ph
3. Esmaquel III, P. (2017, November 20). ASEAN 2017: A wasted opportunity for the West Philippine Sea. Rappler. Retrieved from www.rappler.com
5. Geducos, A. (2017, November 13). Duterte: South China Sea better left untouched. Manila Bulletin. Retrieved from www.news.mb.com.ph
6. Corrales, N. (2017, November 16). Duterte on South China Sea: It’s not time for aggression. Inquirer. Retrieved from www.globalnation.inquirer.net