The Philippines’ Pivot to China, Part 1

by Yifan Su

November 17, 2016

Relations between the Philippines and China have been notably sour in recent years, as the source of this newfound animosity can be traced to territorial disputes in the South China Sea. With nearly $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passing through its waters every year, expanded Chinese presence in the area has seen increased threats to regional stability. One pivotal flashpoint in this escalation was China’s seizure of the disputed Scarborough Shoal in 2012, where the government denied the Philippines watermen access to its fishing grounds. Incensed with this violation of territorial rights, the Philippines took action and pressed legal chargers against Chinese misconduct. The nation brought the South China Sea Arbitration case to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA), a legal body under the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) that handles maritime disputes. In July 2016, soon after the new Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte took office, the arbitral tribunal ruled against the legality of China’s “nine-dash line” claim over the South China Sea within which it exercises exclusive control over the waters and resources. A landmark decision, many commentators argued that this was a victory against Chinese encroachment and demonstrated how smaller Pacific nations could combat their domineering influence.

Surprisingly, Duterte decided not to capitalize on this victory and opted to reevaluate the Philippines’ position on their neighbors. The president has begun an interesting period of rapprochement with the Chinese while marginalizing its partnership with its longtime ally, the United States. During a meeting with the Chinese Preseident Xi Jinping, Duterte emphatically welcomed the relation a new “springtime” between the two former adversaries. Moreover, Duterte has repeatedly made charged and outrageous remarks towards President Obama, the American Ambassador Philip Goldberg and even the Pope regarding their liberal positions on human rights and gender equality. This contrast is evident in more than just tone, as the Duerte appears more statesmanlike and even deferential to his Chinese partners. Overall, this controversial change shows Duterte’s determination to abandon the status-quo relations with the United States and elevate the importance of strengthening regional integration. Yet most revealing, it signals Duerte’s faltering confidence in the United States and a desire to rekindle ties with the emerging Chinese hegemon.

Despite Duterte’s recent statements suggesting a severe realignment, the ramifications of such actions are still unclear. The U.S. and Philippines have many shared security interests, with the former has investing over $4.7 billion in Filipino affairs. In the face of a rising China, Washington has seen Manila as an essential ally in its own foreign policy shift to Asia. Therefore, there has been widespread shock after Duterte’s announcement of a “separation” from the United States, which he later clarified at a press conference in Davao City as a separation of foreign policy rather than a severance of ties. “I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there,” Duterte declared at a forum during his visit to Beijing, “so time to say goodbye my friend.”

Duerte’s harsh words have translated into drastic actions, calling into question the fundamental diplomatic and military ties that have been present since the island nation’s independence.  The U.S. has sternly criticized Duterte’s war on drugs, a devastating initiative that permits extrajudicial killings of alleged drug offenders and clearly abuses citizens’ human rights. In the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit, Obama and Duterte only briefly shook hands without speaking to each other. The Filipino leader also refused to participate in the scheduled joint military drills and naval patrols with the U.S. Yet the deepest cut came in mid-September, when Duterte announced that the Philippines would begin buying weapons from China and Russia instead of the U.S., its traditional main supplier. This turn has not been taken lightly by Washington, as it has raised serious doubt about credible U.S. aid during a military showdown. Many Filipino citizens have begun to side with Duerte and vociferously protested against the perceived over-reach of the American government into their country’s affairs.  Outside the U.S. Embassy in Manila in late October, 1,000 anti-U.S. protesters have gathered and called for the removal of U.S. troops. With hostilities on the rise and reconciliation in the distance, it seems that a return to the welcoming relationship of the past won’t be coming anytime soon.

Yifan Su is a Sophomore B.A. student at the College of William & Mary and an Intern for the William & Mary Policy Review.