Duterte’s Ingratiating Approach to China Has Been a Bust
Originally published at World Politics Review
June 16, 2021 12:16 pm (EST)
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Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. was peeved at Beijing. It was early May, and hundreds of Chinese vessels had been regularly intruding into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, where the Chinese government has made expansive maritime territorial claims. After lodging numerous complaints through formal diplomatic channels to no avail, Locsin took to Twitter and unleashed an expletive-filled tirade. “China, my friend, how politely can I put it?” he wrote. “Let me see… O…GET THE [F**K] OUT.” (Locsin didn’t bother with the asterisks.)
It was not only Philippine officials and diplomats who were angry at Beijing’s willingness to raise tensions in disputed waters. In a poll conducted by the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore earlier this year, before the latest Chinese incursions into Philippine waters, roughly 87 percent of Filipino respondents said that they considered China’s encroachments into other countries’ exclusive economic zones and continental shelves to be the “top concern” in the South China Sea. The same proportion, 87 percent, said that if forced to align with either the United States or China, they would choose the U.S.—the highest share of any country in Southeast Asia.
But even as Filipinos of all stripes vent their anger at Beijing, they should be equally furious with their own leader. His policy toward China has failed to either protect the Philippines’ national security or to boost its economy.
Since taking office in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte has courted Beijing, playing down its construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea and the aggressive behavior of China’s maritime militia vessels. He has also ignored, for the most part, a 2016 international tribunal ruling that unequivocally rejected China’s stated claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea.
At the same time, Duterte has consistently undermined his country’s alliance with the U.S. He has stalled on renewing the Visiting Forces Agreement, or VFA—which allows U.S. troops to maintain a presence in the Philippines—after initially trying to kill it. Duterte also vetoed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, a deal that would make it easier to move U.S. troops and weapons into bases near the South China Sea.
To be sure, the Philippines and the U.S. still enjoy strong strategic ties, and security officials who value the alliance provide a counterweight to some of Duterte’s impulses. It was likely the country’s military and national security establishment that pushed Duterte to buy a new supersonic cruise missile that would provide a deterrent capability against China, to backtrack from trying to jettison the VFA and to make other quiet efforts to restore warmer ties with the U.S. Yet Duterte remains intent on currying favor with Beijing. After Locsin’s outburst, Duterte declared in a briefing that “China remains our benefactor.” The following day, Locsin took to Twitter again, this time to apologize to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, “for hurting his feelings.”
But the reality is that Duterte’s mostly hands-off approach to the South China Sea has failed to change China’s behavior. In fact, when it comes to territorial issues, Beijing has treated the groveling Duterte the same way it has treated leaders of countries like Vietnam, which have taken a more hard-line approach toward disputed maritime claims. The incident that prompted Locsin’s Twitter tirade was just one of many occasions when China has sent hundreds of boats into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone during Duterte’s presidency, intimidating Philippine naval vessels and making it easier for Chinese forces to seize contested islands and fortify them. Last year, as COVID-19 ravaged the Philippines, including its top military commanders, Beijing declared administrative control of the disputed Spratly Islands. It also continued building up military facilities on reclaimed islands in the South China Sea and sent ships to encircle and menace Thitu, the most strategically vital of the disputed archipelagos that the Philippines still controls. China has also increasingly used aggressive fleets to turf Philippine fishers off rich fishing grounds.
Duterte seemingly hoped that, by shifting toward Beijing, aid and investment would flow into the Philippines, bringing jobs, growth and much-needed infrastructure projects. Yet his approach has brought few economic benefits during his single six-year term, which ends next year. In splashy announcements in 2016, Beijing pledged tens of billions of dollars in new investments in the Philippines. But construction has only begun on two proposed Chinese infrastructure projects—a bridge and an irrigation system—and they remain far from completion. China’s vaunted plans for energy, rail and other infrastructure projects have not even broken ground.
As the analyst Richard Heydarian has noted, much of the investment that China has actually delivered on in the Philippines under Duterte has gone to online casinos and modest projects like small bridges. For the most part, these projects have utilized Chinese workers rather than local labor, even as the Philippines is suffering its worst economic downturn since 1947.
The lack of follow-through on investments China promised to the Philippines in 2016 contrasts sharply with other Southeast Asian states. In Indonesia, China is financing a multibillion-dollar high-speed railway project connecting the capital, Jakarta, with Bandung city, as well as another high-speed rail line in Thailand. Both projects were contracted on relatively favorable financing terms.
China’s development aid to the Philippines also remains small by comparison with other major donors. A recent report on aid inflows prepared by the Philippine government’s economic planning body showed that Japan remained by far the country’s biggest donor. During the first half of 2020, Japan provided nearly 40 percent of the Philippines’ official development assistance—about 17 times more than what China provided. Aid from the Asian Development Bank and South Korea also surpassed Beijing’s. More recently, China has stepped up to provide Manila with some COVID-19 vaccines, though the effectiveness of the Chinese shots remains somewhat uncertain.
Duterte’s approval ratings remain very high, but the Philippine public has noticed how little he has gotten from his dealings with Beijing. A wide range of opinion polls show heightened levels of anti-China sentiment among Filipinos. Perhaps aware of that trend in public opinion, several candidates for next year’s presidential election, including the boxer-turned-politician Manny Pacquiao, have been talking tough on China. If elected, he could reorient the country’s foreign policy back in a direction skeptical of Beijing, closer to the United States, and in favor of building a multilateral coalition to defend freedom of navigation and territorial rights in the South China Sea.
The front-runner for the 2022 presidential election, though, remains Duterte’s daughter, Sara, mayor of the southern city of Davao, though she has not confirmed her intention to run. Sara Duterte’s views on China are not as openly favorable as her father’s. But if she does run and succeed him in office, inheriting his political machine as the bulwark of her support, she would be hard-pressed to reverse her father’s China policy, no matter how disastrous it has been for the country.
And no matter who wins the presidency next year, Beijing will have spent Duterte’s term in office strengthening its hold on disputed maritime features that are critical to Philippine national security, in addition to providing livelihoods to the country’s fishers. The damage from Duterte’s disastrous China policy has already been done.