Duterte’s pivot to China: Gains, challenges, promises
President Duterte’s foreign policy has been marked by relative distance from the West and expanded interaction with closer Asian neighbors.
China, the first major power that he visited, looms large in this recalibration. He has made four trips to China and three to Japan and Singapore; he has visited all Southeast Asian capitals, as well as India, South Korea and several Middle Eastern countries. But he has yet to visit a western country.
Growing intraregional trade, migrant labor flows, a desire to manage disputes, and Western criticism of his domestic policies, notably his controversial war on drugs, have motivated his foreign trips.
Mr. Duterte’s cultivation of friendly ties with Beijing has strong economic, security and strategic underpinnings. The rise of China and other regional powers is stirring geopolitical shifts with profound implications on the world. The fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia, including the Philippines, are in the fault line of a major power rivalry between the traditional dominant power, the United States, and a rising challenger, China. In this context, overreliance on one power is unwise and can even be a liability when the rivalry intensifies.
This may have prompted Mr. Duterte to rethink the Philippines’ approach to its big northern neighbor with which it has long-standing territorial and maritime disputes.
One cannot choose one’s neighbors, but one can choose the relations one wants to have with them. Mr. Duterte made his choice. His approach to China has rested on managing disputes, building trust and confidence, and expanding economic ties.
This approach recognizes that decades-old disputes cannot be easily resolved even with the landmark 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. For instance, while the ruling clarified maritime entitlements and the status of certain features in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), it did not rule on questions of sovereign ownership over features in the sea. It even affirmed the traditional fishing rights of foreign nationals in certain areas of the Philippines’ western exclusive economic zone (e.g., Panatag Shoal).
And while the ruling did narrow down areas of maritime dispute by deciding that no feature in the semi-enclosed sea qualifies as an island eligible for extended maritime zones, the close proximity of certain features may still create possible overlaps, particularly if they would be deemed rocks or high-tide elevations entitled to a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea.
Hence, while acknowledging the ruling’s value as leverage in dealing with Beijing, there is no substitute to establishing bilateral and regional mechanisms to manage disputes in the six-party flash point. The creation of a bilateral consultation mechanism, which has met four times since 2016, and its active participation in negotiations for a regional Code of Conduct (COC) represent Manila’s two-pronged approach in dealing with the WPS challenge.
Friendlier relations with China and with fellow Asean members enable the Philippines to fully harness its role as Asean-China country coordinator, putting it in a good position to seek the early adoption of an effective and binding COC. The establishment of hotline communications and adoption of a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea constitute other regional mechanisms to address sea incidents. In the last meeting of Asean defense ministers in Thailand, member-countries reaffirmed the importance of Guidelines for Air Military Encounters and adopted Guidelines for Maritime Interaction.
Playing down disputes is essential to stabilizing relations and expanding economic engagement. In 2016 and 2017, Mr. Duterte pardoned Vietnamese poachers caught near waters off northwestern Luzon, gave them provisions, and witnessed their sendoff.
Manila is not alone in this. Other countries with unsettled maritime rows with China, like Vietnam and Malaysia, deemphasize the impact of such disputes in their overall ties.
Caution and prudence guide the Philippines’ attitude toward sea incidents, such as what happened at Recto Bank on June 9. The act of leaving Filipino fishers in distress was condemned, a diplomatic protest was filed, a Vietnamese fishing vessel that came to the rescue was thanked, the fishermen and their families were given immediate relief, China’s explanation was sought, and an investigation was concluded.
A week after the incident, in a speech before the United Nations, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. called the act of abandoning Filipino fishers to the elements a “felony.” The matter was also brought to the attention of the International Maritime Organization in London.
At the Asean Summit in Bangkok last month, Mr. Duterte raised the urgency of concluding a COC to prevent similar incidents from taking place in the future. At this point, Manila could convey the probe’s findings to Beijing and expect to hear the results of the latter’s own inquiry and the corresponding actions to be taken.
While security concerns over Beijing’s increased presence and activities in the WPS remain, Mr. Duterte’s China policy has produced tremendous economic dividends for the Philippines. China became the Philippines’ largest trade partner in 2016 and largest export market and investor in 2018; it is expected to become the Philippines’ largest tourism market this year.
Last year, China became the Philippines’ biggest banana export market—a distinction held by Japan for 30 years. Philippine fruit exports to China jumped by 50 percent in 2017. In fact, it is domestic constraints, such as inefficient production and difficulties in land acquisition, that are limiting Filipino growers and exporters from taking a larger bite of the China market.
Last April, China became the Philippines’ top source of tourists — a position held by South Korea for six years. Meanwhile, delays in infrastructure projects are largely attributable to local factors, notably weak absorptive capacity, administrative bottlenecks and right-of-way issues.
Partnership with China in the fields of poverty alleviation, renewable energy, manufacturing, skills training, e-commerce and fintech may hold promise.
In sum, Mr. Duterte’s warm ties with Beijing reflect emerging regional responses to China’s rise. The desire to properly handle disputes so as not to affect overall ties is apparent. Although perceived threats may not be easily discounted, China is increasingly seen as a new partner with a transformative impact on the country. Balancing security and economic demands will shape the evolution of bilateral ties.
That said, hard swings should be avoided to mitigate disruption and ensure continuity. —CONTRIBUTED
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Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation and the University of the Philippines Korea Research Center, a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at Ateneo de Manila University, a contributing editor (Reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal, and a board member of the Philippine Association for China Studies.
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