The New Philippine Leadership and Prospects for Sino-Philippine Relations
By Alvin Cheng-Hin Lim

The New Philippine Leadership and Prospects for Sino-Philippine Relations

May. 25, 2016  |     |  0 comments

The 2016 Philippine General Elections has seen the landslide win of Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte in the presidential race. Duterte, whose unabashedly politically incorrect speech led many commentators to describe him as the Filipino Donald Trump, won 5 million more votes than his closest rival, the establishment candidate Manuel ‘Mar’ Roxas (Heydarian, 2016; “Philippines’ presidential candidate,” 2016). Duterte’s popularity can be explained in part by the popular perception of him as the anti-Aquino. Despite steady GDP growth under the outgoing administration of Benigno Aquino III, which jumped from 3.7 percent in 2011 to reach over 6 percent from 2012-2014 and 5.8 percent in 2015, the Philippine poor did not feel included in the economic progress. Indeed, they instead felt that Aquino’s economic reforms had been “brutal to the poor” (Asian Development Bank, n.d.; Ronquillo, 2015). This general sense of alienation from the fruits of the Philippines’ economic growth contributed to the voting population’s “Aquino fatigue.” As the New York Times observes:

“Despite six years of relative prosperity, thousands of Filipinos still leave the country every month to work in often dangerous and degrading jobs in the Middle East because they cannot find jobs at home. Workers who do have jobs at home often find themselves commuting four or five hours a day because of the crippling traffic in Manila and other large cities.” (Whaley, 2016)

Since his election, Duterte has announced plans to auction off the Presidential yacht, repurpose Presidential aircraft into air ambulances, and save taxpayer dollars by staying outside of Malacañang Palace during his upcoming term of office, which is scheduled to begin with his inauguration on June 30, 2016 (“Duterte: Why wouldn’t,” 2016; “Philippines: Duterte,” 2016). In keeping with his pro-poor policy, Duterte’s inauguration will be simple, without the traditionally lavish and extravagant inauguration dinner and ball (Romero, 2016).

Significantly, Duterte has announced that key cabinet positions will be offered to the elite from Mindanao instead of Manila. This greater political representation of one of the Philippines’ most underdeveloped regions is an early and strong symbol of Duterte’s call for greater equitable development across the country (Tarrazona, 2016). The President-elect has also restored global investor confidence in the Philippine market, after the jitters caused during the campaign period, by recommending business-friendly policies like increasing foreign ownership of local enterprises and cracking down on graft in the tax system (Karunungan & Lopez, 2016).

Following up on his infamously brutal war-on-crime campaign rhetoric that helped to win him the election, Duterte has reiterated that he intends to ask the Philippine Congress to reintroduce the death penalty and empower Philippine security forces to “shoot dead suspected criminals who violently resisted arrest” (“The next president,” 2016). Indeed, he doubled down on the violent rhetoric which had triggered international consternation by recommending the “double hanging” of those who commit murder during the commission of robbery or rape:

“After the first hanging, there will be another ceremony for the second time until the head is completely severed from the body.” (“The next president,” 2016)

In the meantime, the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) has halted its probe into the long-standing accusations from human rights groups of Duterte’s support for vigilante death squads during his tenure as Mayor of Davao City, due to the sudden departure — following Duterte’s presidential victory — of the investigation’s sole witness from the DOJ’s witness protection program (Human Rights Watch, 2009; “DOJ halts probe,” 2016). It should be noted that the Philippine public’s revulsion of their country’s crime is such that these accusations of Duterte’s alleged human rights abuses likely strengthened rather than diminished his appeal to the electorate. One early indication of the population’s thirst for Duterte’s tough approach to crime are the “surprising number of Manila residents” who “actually moved to Davao because of its better quality of life” (Hayton, 2016).

Duterte is also seeking to restart the stalled peace process with the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), which had been halted in 2013 by the outgoing Aquino administration. Duterte has offered four cabinet positions — Agrarian Reform, Environment and Natural Resources, Social Welfare and Development, and Labor and Employment — to the CPP. He is also considering granting amnesty to the over 500 political prisoners arrested during the country’s four decade long communist insurgency. CPP founder Jose Maria Sison, who is currently in exile in Europe, has welcomed the President-elect’s gestures towards reconciliation, and has suggested he may end his exile during Duterte’s presidency (Tupaz, 2016; “Joma Sison hopes,” 2016; “Philippines: Duterte mulls,” 2016).

The South China Sea Dispute

A key event in Sino-Philippine relations that Duterte will inherit from the outgoing Aquino administration is the upcoming verdict in the arbitration case on the Sino-Philippine maritime dispute in the South China Sea which was filed in 2013 under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Bautista, 2014). US President Barack Obama has advised Duterte to wait for the arbitration verdict before deciding on a change of direction in Sino-Philippine relations, presumably because the judgement is widely expected to be favorable to the Philippines (Macas, 2016; J. Wang, 2016). While Duterte is inclined to follow the Aquino administration’s US-centric policy on the South China Sea, he has warned Obama that this could change should there be no significant progress (Macas, 2016). Indeed, Duterte has concerns about the US’ willingness to support the Philippines in the event of an outbreak of war between the Philippines and China:

“I’m asking point blank America, are you with us? Or are you not with us? If we go to war, will you be at my back to support me? Or would you tell me to go to war on your own? (Batino, 2016)

Duterte is hence willing to reopen bilateral talks with Beijing to resolve the Sino-Philippine maritime boundary dispute in the South China Sea, and is also willing to consider joint Sino-Philippine explorations of the South China Sea’s natural resources (Page & Moss, 2016).

Duterte’s proposal for cooperative projects in the South China Sea is in line with the Chinese government’s reassurances to the international community that China’s island reclamation and construction works in the contested waters offer infrastructural support for international public goods including disaster relief and maritime search and rescue (Moss, 2015). In addition, as the Philippine analyst Rommel Banlaoi points out, Duterte’s proposal for Sino-Philippine cooperation in the South China Sea comports with “Deng Xiaoping’s formula of shelving territorial disputes for the purpose of joint cooperation” (Banlaoi, 2016). Duterte has also stated that he may seek Chinese investment for railway development in the Philippines (Page & Moss, 2016). The prospect of the expansion of China’s “One Belt One Road” global infrastructure network into the Philippines could prompt Beijing to offer concessions to the Duterte administration to better facilitate fruitful negotiations. China has welcomed Duterte’s conciliatory statements, with the Chinese Foreign Ministry expressing its hope that the new Philippine leadership will return Sino-Philippine relations to “the track of sound development” (Q. Wang, 2016).

Duterte’s openness to Sino-Philippine cooperation does not mean, however, that he is willing to accept violations of Philippine sovereignty. One of his preconditions for Sino-Philippine bilateral discussions is Beijing’s acknowledgement of Manila’s claims of sovereignty (Page & Moss, 2016). His political party, PDP-Laban, has also filed treason charges against outgoing president Aquino and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV for their roles in the secret negotiations that resulted in the loss of Scarborough Shoal to China in 2012 (Lacorte, 2016; “Palace says treason,” 2016). As Duterte stated at a press briefing:

“I can take all the insults, the muck and garbage that is part of the territory of politics, but itong ganitong nawalan tayo ng lupa (but to lose our land), or whatever is under the water is lupa (land), I can’t take it.” (Lacorte, 2016)

While President Aquino has denied the accusation of treason,1 China analyst Peter Lee reminds us that the Philippines lost Scarborough Shoal after high-level interference from the Philippine cabinet — instigated by the US — in Sino-Philippine bilateral talks. The soured Sino-Philippine relationship following China’s takeover of Scarborough Shoal was then followed by closer US-Philippine relations, and “proponents of the US alliance were able to push through the ‘Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement’ that signaled the de facto return of US military forces to Philippines bases 25 years after they were kicked out” (Lee, 2016a). Indeed, the hidden US role in the loss of Scarborough Shoal is unlikely to endear the US to Duterte, who has publicly expressed his “hatred” and opposition to US military intervention in Mindanao, especially due to its adverse impact on local peacebuilding efforts as well as “communal harmony between Moro Muslims and Christians” (Lee, 2016b).


1. For his part, Senator Trillanes, who had led failed coup attempts in 2003 and 2007, has recently been accused of plotting a coup d’état against the incoming Duterte administration, an accusation he has denied. See Gita (2016) and Macaraig (2016).


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