Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute
Last month, President Rodrigo Duterte conveyed to his countrymen that he expected China to be fair on the South China Sea dispute and that they should accept Beijing as a good neighbor.
“I am sure that in the end, China will be fair and the equity will be distributed,” he said. He predicted that “in the days to come, we would realize that China… is really a good neighbor.”
Duterte’s (misplaced) good faith on China is consistent with his administration’s appeasement policy, which is in turn embodied by his and his foreign affairs and defense officials’ concerted efforts to foster closer relations with the rising superpower, alongside calculated moves to pivot away from the United States and its allies (Japan and Australia), over the South China Sea disputes, in particular, and in other international issues, in general.
The Philippine public, however, does not share Duterte’s benign and patronizing view of China. Opposition figures and left-wing organizations have criticized the Duterte administration for not publicly raising alarm and indignation over Chinese efforts to militarize the land features it occupies in the South China.
Two prominent American analysts rightly observed that “expert and media commentaries in the Philippines tend to highlight the dangers and obstacles regarding his infatuation with China and animosity towards the U.S.”
A fragile rapprochement?
The Duterte administration’s appeasement policy is based on a quid pro quo with China and would result in the unraveling of his predecessor’s balancing policy on China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea. This was in exchange for Chinese moderation in their actions vis-à-vis the Philippines and, more significantly, the infusion of Chinese investment and aid for the Duterte administration’s massive infrastructure program called “Build, Build, Build.”
The siege of Marawi City in 2017 and the revelation of the Philippine military’s weakness vis-à-vis the Islamic militants provided the United States an opportunity to bring the Philippines back “onside, rather than pushing [it] further to China’s embrace.”
The U.S. supported the Philippines in the two countries’ mutual interests of counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Assistance and Risk Reduction.
Consequently, the U.S. assistance to the Philippines during and after the siege of Marawi City strengthened the pro-American elements in the government and military, providing them opportunities to mitigate Duterte’s efforts to separate from Washington and to gravitate closer to China.
In early June, the Philippine government issued a formal demand for China to ask its Coast Guard to stay away from the Philippines’ traditional fishing grounds around the Scarborough Shoal and stop the harassment of Filipino fishermen off the shoal. This action was triggered by TV news reports of Chinese Coast Guard personnel boarding Filipino fishing vessels, inspecting the fishermen’s catch, and then confiscating their best catch.
In late July, the Philippine government expressed concern over the increase in offensive Chinese radio warnings against Philippine aircraft and ships flying and sailing near reclaimed and fortified islands in the South China Sea.
An internal Armed Forces of the Philippines report leaked to the Associated Press revealed that Philippine Air Force planes patrolling the South China Sea have received at least 46 warnings from Chinese naval outpost in the artificial islands, where more powerful communications and surveillance equipment have been installed along with weapons such as anti-aircraft guns and surface-to-air missiles.
China is also withholding the funds it promised Duterte when he visited Beijing in October 2016. During that visit, he collected US$24 billion in investment pledges to finance his administration’s ambitious five-year infrastructure agenda.
However, according to a study by Alvin A. Camba of Johns Hopkins University in Wash-ington D.C., of the US$24-billion pledges made in 2016, US$15 billion were negotiated between private businessmen that were eventually modified or canceled. The rest of the projects have been stalled because they are hard to implement such as rail networks and irrigation dams.
In mid-August, a delegation of Filipino ranking officials led by Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez went to Beijing to discuss China’s funding of several infrastructure projects under the administration’s “Build, Build, Build” program.
Both sides agreed on a two-stage funding program (first and second baskets) for Chinese loan financing. This means that while Chinese funds would be available to finance the administration’s infrastructure projects, the money will be disbursed on a staggered basis and on Beijing’s terms.
Crisis in the appeasement policy on China?
Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano has affirmed the Duterte administration’s goal for the Philippines and China to agree on a joint development arrangement that will enable the two disputing states to come up with a scheme to utilize the natural resources in the South China Sea for mutual benefits.
However, stung by the Filipino public’s negative view on the government’s appeasement policy and by China’s refusal to keep its end of the bargain, Cayetano revealed that the Philippines has informed China of four “red lines” in the two countries’ territorial dis-putes. He also threatened to resign from office if the Philippines will lose additional territory to China under his watch as foreign secretary.
On 15 August, Duterte openly criticized China for its island-building activities and called on it to temper its behavior in the South China Sea. This was his strongest comment on China since he pursued an appeasement policy in late 2016.
China, however, sharply rebuffed him by asserting that it “has a right to take the neces-sary steps to respond to foreign aircraft and ships that deliberately get close to or make incursions into air and waters near China’s relevant islands.”
Philippine-China relations in the twenty-first century has undergone periods of ups and downs. It experienced a golden age during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s term. The relationship became problematic and toxic during President Benigno Aquino’s presidency. These recent developments indicate that Philippine-China relations under the Duterte administration might again undergo this cycle of ups and downs.
As one Chinese pundit observes: “As for China, the periodic swing of Sino-Philippine relations means China should remain cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, China should take advantage of this chance to bolster relations with Manila. On the other hand, Beijing should remain wary of historic fluctuations in the relationship.”
Image Source: philstar.com