Duterte Bets Beijing Visit Will Reset the Philippines’ Difficult China Relations

By Nicole Smolinske & Lance Jackson —

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference in the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia, Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office, public domain.

President Rodrigo Duterte addresses a press conference in the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia, public domain.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte begins a four-day official state visit to China on October 18 in which he is betting that his increasingly strident statements of independence from the United States will help reset the country’s strained ties with China. The visit will be his first outside of Southeast Asia and could provide insights on the direction of Filipino foreign policy under the new president. Duterte has repeatedly pledged to chart a more independent foreign policy that is less reliant on U.S. support.

Under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino U.S.-Philippine relations were the closest they had been since the United States was ousted from its military bases in the Philippines in the 1990s. Under Aquino, the two countries in 2014 signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement, which was in part a reaction to the China’s seizure of Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.

Recent public proclamations by Duterte have brought the future of these agreements into question. Duterte has used stunningly unflattering language to describe President Barack Obama and has said he plans to end joint patrols with the United States in the South China Sea and threatened to discontinue the annual U.S.-Philippines joint military exercise known as PHIBLEX.

Much of Duterte’s goal with China is economic. He would like Chinese aid to develop badly needed infrastructure, including a railroad in his native Mindanao, and he has said Beijing has offered him a 25-year loan to buy weapons from China. Duterte told journalists that Philippine sovereignty in the South China Sea would not be on the negotiating table and pledged to raise the country’s terrirtorial disputes with Chinese officials, including the July ruling of an international tribunal against Beijing’s claims.

China will be interested in encouraging Duterte to follow through with his plans to limit joint exercises with the United States. Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute of Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of Philippines, told reporters that reduced American operations would allow the Chinese Navy more flexibility in the South China Sea.

However, Daniel Russel, the senior U.S. diplomat for East Asia, said in a recent press conference that the Philippines has yet to officially propose any changes to its relationship with Washington. Philippine foreign minister Perfecto Yasay has already said that bilateral negotiations on the South China Sea would not take place during the visit. The best outcome China could hope for would be a public declaration that would outline the position of the parties and pave the way for negotiations on joint development of resources at a later date.

Duterte walks a fine line, placing a longstanding alliance with the United States against an untested relationship with China, a country actively trying to expand its influence in the South China Sea. Duterte seeks deeper recognition as a sovereign equal and often feels underfoot of the U.S. colonial legacy, especially in Mindanao, the island Duterte calls home. It appears that Duterte is flexing his influence and hoping to broker deals more advantageous to the Philippines by playing the United States and China against each other. During the presidential campaign, Duterte’s attitude towards Washington was notably less engaged than that of his predecessor, repeatedly announcing his hopes for improving ties with China.

Duterte’s visit to China will be one of the first concrete indicators of how dramatically Philippine foreign policy will shift. Infrastructure development, business ties, and securing access to the Scarborough Shoal for Filipino fishermen will be at the top of Duterte’s agenda when he meets his Chinese counterpart. Duterte stands to gain $50 billion in investment deals from China, according to Xu Liping, a Southeast Asia expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, speaking to the Straits Times.

Duterte’s election campaign platform largely centered on combating domestic crime and drug use. The tactics of his anti-drug crusade have prompted intense international scrutiny. Many global leaders, including from the United States, have sharply rebuked the extrajudicial killings related to Duterte’s campaign. U.S. opposition has been a particularly sharp thorn in Duterte’s side as he often criticizes the United States, calling the Americans “hypocrites” and referencing the 1906 Bud Dajo massacre in his home island of Mindanao as proof the United States lacks moral high ground to protest the extrajudicial killings.

While much of the international community reprimands Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, China offers its support and collaboration. In a strong display of backing, Chinese billionaire-philanthropist,Huang Rulung recently funded a “mega” drug treatment center, which will house thousands of drug addicts seeking rehabilitation. China’s non-interference in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign may serve as a push toward a stronger tilt to China as it supports the Philippines aims of steering a more independent course.

The foreign policy of the new administration is still very much a work in progress and is seemingly trying to step away from its self-perceived identity as the “little brown brother” of the United States. There are many domestic and international push and pull factors that will determine how the Philippines ultimately balances its foreign policy. Relations with China are just one part of the equation.

Even if Duterte’s meeting with China exceeds expectations, he has yet to develop a domestic coalition strong enough to support a decisive pivot away from the United States toward China. Duterte’s bombastic statements have rattled the status quo just enough to open up new foreign policy opportunities for his country and enhance his bargaining position with old allies. He is in a position of both courting China and incentivizing the United States to tread more gently in its criticisms of his domestic policies. Duterte appears to have concluded that this is the best place for him to be at the moment.

Ms. Nicole Smolinske and Mr. Lance Jackson are researchers with the Southeast Asia Program at CSIS.


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