By Miguel Dygico
AFTER more than four years in power, President Rodrigo Duterte has yet to prove that the Philippines has benefited from a closer alliance with the People’s Republic of China (PRoC).
Early in his term, the former Davao City mayor had marked a dramatic shift in foreign policy when he started warming up to Beijing in exchange for billions of dollars in pledged Chinese investments. But much of that promised investment have not materialized, with projects delayed or shelved, while anti-China rhetoric is growing louder within Duterte’s own government and his critics, among them the majority of Filipino fishermen and farmers.
Among other things that showed his pro-China stance, the president also set aside our country’s territorial dispute with Beijing in the West Philippine Sea, in exchange, again, for billions of dollars that China pledged in infrastructure investments.
So on all counts, Duterte is increasingly accused of having abased himself before Beijing and gotten nothing for it.
Actually, China did launch two of the pledged infrastructure projects—a bridge and an irrigation project—but both have hit major snags that could scuttle them altogether.
Beijing has also not backed off on harassing our countrymen—both fishermen and the military—in the West Philippine Sea. So on all counts, Duterte’s conciliatory approach toward China is not shared by most of the public, who continue to view other global and regional powers more favorably.
In a July survey by pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS), Filipinos were found to trust the United States and Australia more than China. Notably, trust in China was worse than the same survey conducted in December last year.
Such deterioration in public sentiment against China coincided with the coronavirus pandemic—which is ravaging our economy until now—and Beijing’s continued invasive aggression in the West Philippine Sea, where the two countries have overlapping territorial claims.
The Philippines and China have for years clashed over competing claims in the resource-rich sea, through which trillions of dollars of global trade good pass annually and, under former President Benigno Aquino III, Manila took Beijing to court.
In 2016, shortly after Duterte took office, an international tribunal ruled that portions claimed by both countries belong to the Philippines alone. China ignored the ruling, however, and critics said Duterte did little to demand compliance from Chinese president Xi Jinping. Even as China-skeptic voices within his administration grew, Duterte stayed mostly silent, analysts noted.
Yet as a whole, remarks critical of China from Duterte’s own cabinet do not signal an imminent shift in the administration’s stance towards China.
These comments appear to be deliberate attempts to placate domestic stakeholders, such as growing parts of military and the public, that are skeptical about Duterte’s China policy.
Analysts, though, said that ties between China and the Philippines would remain stable as long as Duterte is president. But actions speak louder than words: the Duterte administration will continue to deepen economic engagement with China and to refuse to internationalize the West Philippine Sea dispute.
But with less than two years left in his six-year term, Duterte is running out of time to get the economic results he had wanted from Beijing. Despite the largely unfulfilled Chinese promises, Duterte maintains his argument that Filipinos are still “better off” in avoiding confrontation with China given the “asymmetry of power” between both countries.