The Philippines’ Pivot to China, Part 2

by Yifan Su

November 18, 2016

Note: This piece is the second of a two-part series.

There remain some optimistic predictions about the state of U.S.-Philippines affairs. After Duterte’s wild remarks, his office clarified that the treaty alliance with the US would remain intact for the foreseeable future. His top economic policymakers also stated that while the Asian economic integration is “long overdue,” the Philippines will strive to maintain cooperation with the West. The U.S. has not received any request from Filipino officials to alter bilateral coordination either.

Even with Duterte’s unmistakable popularity in the Philippines, the public opinion is largely in favor of the U.S. while making it difficult for Duterte to sell his unpopular pivot. In addition to the sharp contrast between the Filipinos trust ratings of the U.S. and of China that stand at +66 and -33 respectively, many senior officials also lament Duterte’s impetuous tilt to China. American officials, such as Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the United States Pacific Command, believes the close working relationship with Filipino community is as strong as ever. Citing the continuing joint naval patrols and cooperation in Mindanao, Harris sees claims of Chinese engagement as a bit of an exaggeration. America still has five bases on Philippine soil, especially the Palawan base, which significantly enhances the ability of American forces to project power into the disputed South China Sea.

Some scholars and politicians including the Duterte’s economic policymakers suggest that Duterte is not turning his back on the West, but rather pursing his current priorities for development and growth. Pundits argue that the cost to the Philippines of standing up to Chinese aggression should be recognized. Chinese investment and tourists have long shied away from the Philippines. However, the current warming relations will bring the Philippines benefits of China’s cheap loans and its lucrative market that previously had limited access to.

Chinese financial support has been touted as a major benefit of the diplomatic thaw, arguing that rapprochement is in the national interest.  Duterte has praised the project of a state-of-the-art drug rehabilitation center backed by Chinese investors as a symbol of restored friendship. He also expects the Chinese to construct a railway in Mindanao and lift bans on more than two dozen fruits imposed previously under an embargo. Additionally, China’s financial aid and investments, unlike the West, do not come with a demand that human rights and democracy be respected. Countries with autocratic tendencies, such as Cambodia and the Philippines, are likely to express satisfaction for not bringing up questions about human rights.

Ultimately, the disputed issue that underlies the Philippines-China relation cannot be overlooked and forgotten. Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the two sides agreed to “pursue bilateral dialogue and consultation in seeking a proper settlement of the South China Sea issue,” but no details were mentioned regarding the disputed Shoal. On the Chinese side, the Shoal issue is said to be open to accommodation, and it has not yet attempted to build military facilities similar to the ones on other reefs.

Dr. Renato Cruz De Castro, a fellow at the East-West Center in Washington who specializes on China and the Philippines said, “Duterte is putting China on the spot. If they do military construction at Scarborough Shoal, that would drive Mr. Duterte back to the United States.” Despite the fact that the two sides signed 13 bilateral deals and agreed to resolve the disputes through talks, Duterte is unlikely to be an easy customer, especially in regards to the undecided Shoal, having vowed not to surrender any sovereignty to Beijing. Thus, simply setting aside the issue does not mean that the conflict is going to be resolved, based on Philippines’ current stance. To draw the Philippines into its camp, China has to considerably more than fishing rights and redirected capital flows.

As China extends generous inducements and meddles with existing U.S. alliances, the U.S. faces the additionally task of repairing frayed ties with its longstanding partners before curbing Chinese influence. U.S. access to the Philippines is considered a mainstay of its Pivot to Asia strategy. The robust economic relationships with China seem to trump the fear of China’s military clout and aggression. If China probes Duterte for strategic concessions, such as stopping American use of the Palawan air base, in exchange for economic help, it will be a major win in China’s long-term campaign to weaken the U.S. impact in the region and will greatly complicate the U.S. military planning.

Duterte’s pivot is said to be a huge impact not only on Philippines foreign policy but also on broader regional geopolitical dynamics. Andrew Shearer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington said, “It [China] will feed fears that the right mix of intimidation and inducements could influence other partners to distance themselves from Washington.” As many countries are taking a neutral stance on or even rewarding China’s aggression, its divide-and-conquer strategy now places the Philippines in its crosshairs.

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