Over the past five years, bilateral relations between China and the Philippines, a United States treaty ally, have undergone a tremendous transformation. In the words of a top Chinese diplomat, what we have witnessed, especially under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, is a ‘golden age’ in bilateral relations. Richard Javad Heydarian specially for the East Asia Forum.
But in his twilight months in office ahead of the May 2022 presidential elections, the Filipino president — who is constitutionally confined to a single six-year term in office — has adopted a dramatically divergent tone on China.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte speaks to the media in Pasay City, Metro Manila, Philippines, 2 October 2021 (Photo: Reuters/Lisa Marie David).
During the recent China-ASEAN Summit, Duterte abhorred purported harassment of Philippine resupply missions in the South China Sea by Chinese vessels. Amid the latest flare up in maritime tensions over the Second Thomas Shoal, Duterte openly warned, ‘this does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership’ and called on the Philippines to utilise legal tools to maintain peace in the South China Sea.
The abrupt shift in Duterte’s tone may appear to be driven by contingent elements, namely public pressure at home amid the standoff over the disputed shoal. It’s clear that Duterte and his successor will come under growing pressure from the public and the defence establishment to take a more robust stance on China.
Following weeks of rollercoaster political manoeuvres, the line-up of Duterte’s potential successors is now effectively finalised. By all indications, neither presidential daughter Sara Duterte or long-time presidential aide Senator Christopher ‘Bong’ Go will be in the contention for the presidency this time. That has left Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr as the clear frontrunner in the 2022 presidential elections.
Bongbong Marcos is the only popular candidate to have openly backed continuity in Philippine foreign policy towards China by emphasising the futility of confrontation and the value of robust economic cooperation with the Asian powerhouse.
His father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was one of the first leaders among top US allies in Asia to open communication channels and formalise bilateral relations with Maoist China in the mid-1970s. Anticipating warm ties under a Marcos Jr presidency, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian has openly fawned over the current frontrunner.
Philippine Vice President Maria Leonor ‘Leni’ Robredo, the de-facto leader of the opposition, who has mostly ranked second in key surveys, has indicated a more radical departure from Duterte’s policy. She is emphasising robust defence relations with traditional Western allies and promoting the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which Beijing has rejected, as the ultimate basis for management of disputes with China in the South China Sea. As for boxer-turned-politician Emmanuel ‘Manny’ Pacquiao, the former Duterte ally has also adopted a far tougher stance on China and even gone so far as accusing Duterte of soft-pedalling on maritime disputes.
But to best understand the likely direction of Philippine policy, one should look at the position of more ‘centrist’ candidates, who are consciously tweaking their foreign policy messaging based on public opinion and the sentiments of the defence establishment.
Manila Mayor Francisco ‘Isko’ Moreno, who is placed third in most surveys, has advocated for a ‘middle course’ on practically every major issue, including the South China Sea disputes. In recent months, he has both emphasised the value of engagement with China and strengthening the Philippines’ defensive capabilities.
Moreno has backed potential joint energy exploration agreements in the South China Sea to de-escalate tensions and foster a cooperative relationship with China. At the same time, he has supported revitalised military ties with Washington, while warning of a swift and decisive response against any Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen and vessels in the disputed areas.
The wisdom behind the foreign policy posturing of top centrist candidates such as Moreno, who is trying to win supporters from across the political spectrum, is based on the ebbs and flows of broader public opinion. The United States enjoys high favourability ratings among Filipinos, often among the highest in the world, while China has historically suffered from very low trust ratings.
According to the Social Weather Stations polling agency, China’s net trust rating among Filipinos was only positive in nine out of 53 surveys conducted between 1994 and 2020. In 2020, China’s net trust rating reached -36 per cent, a stark contrast to the majority trust rating enjoyed by the United States, Japan and Australia.
But the public has embraced a more pragmatic view on China. For instance, a 2017 Pew Research Center survey showed that the number of Filipinos who preferred economic engagement over confrontation with China amid territorial disputes increased from 43 per cent in 2015 to 67 per cent in 2017. The same survey showed that 53 per cent of Filipinos expressed confidence in Chinese leadership.
In a preliminary 2018 survey that I jointly conducted with professor Charithie Joaquin of the National Defense College of the Philippines, we found out that a significant number of emerging leaders within the Armed Forces of the Philippines also welcomed engagement with Beijing as an emerging regional superpower, despite their concerns over China’s maritime assertiveness.
What seems to have soured public views towards Beijing is China’s failure to fulfil large-scale investment pledges to the Philippines as well as repeated reports of Chinese vessels harassing fishermen and soldiers across the South China Sea in recent years.
In the Philippines’ boisterous democracy, public opinion and the sentiments of the military reign supreme. Whoever succeeds Duterte will come under tremendous pressure to adopt calibrated assertiveness with respect to the South China Sea disputes, but also a measure of geopolitical pragmatism in relations with China.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic and columnist based in Manila.