Philippine public sentiment remains uncertain

By Zha Wen Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/25 21:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's announcement during his Beijing trip last week that he will cut military and economic ties with the US has aroused much speculation. This is not the first time that the new president used anti-US rhetoric since he was sworn in. He emphasized that he was "not a fan" of the US and vowed to chart an independent foreign policy. He even asked US Special Forces stationed in the Mindanao region to leave and said he would review the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that Manila signed with Washington in 2014. Does this mean that the US-Philippine alliance is coming to an end? Not really.

There are indeed conflicts between Duterte and the US government. His harsh crackdown on drug crimes in the Philippines has obviously harmed ties with the US. Washington has underestimated to some extent the importance that combating crimes means to the Duterte administration and at the same time come under lots of pressure from domestic human rights organizations and media. The New York-based Human Rights Watch has condemned the new Philippine government many times and urged Washington to reduce assistance to Manila. In the 33 press briefings of the US State Department between August and September, questions related to the Philippines were raised 10 times, with five about the Philippine human rights situation and two about diplomatic clashes between the US ambassador to Manila and the Duterte government. The frequent involvement in Philippine internal affairs by the US government and social groups has upset Duterte. 

By taking aim at the US, Duterte doesn't mean to draw more US attention so as to obtain more military and economic assistance. Instead, his rhetoric clearly shows the importance that he attaches to domestic policy and his determination to adjust foreign policy for the sake of internal affairs. For Duterte, improving public security quickly is of great political significance, which can showcase the new government's resolute style of work and maintain its strong public support.

For a certain period to come, human rights issues triggered by the crackdown on crime will dominate the conflict between the Philippines and the US. But it doesn't mean that their alliance will be completely destroyed or Manila will completely tilt toward Beijing. After all, Manila is unlikely to break away in a short period of time from its dependence on Washington both economically and militarily. It doesn't hold water that the Philippines could be dependent on the US militarily and on China economically.

In fact, according to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, by 2012 the US had put $7.6 billion in foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Philippines and became the largest investor in the country, while the Chinese mainland only invested $300 million. The US was followed by Japan. Being a critical partner, Japan is the largest provider of official development assistance for the Philippines and has made as much as a $6.4 billion investment in the country.

A lot of uncertainties arise from the political divide in the Philippines. There are two conflicting fractions. The populism represented by Duterte centers around the Mindanao region in the southern Philippines. The progressive reformism, which is mainly adopted in Manila, represents traditional political elites that are mostly pro-US.

Not long ago the Duterte government released a series of lists of suspected drug users and dealers, including many military and government officials. In fact, Duterte's administration has to a degree threatened the interests of traditional political forces. As a result rumors of a political coup in the country float about from time to time.

The sentiment of Filipinos makes the country susceptible to nationalist  outbursts. Before Sino-Philippine relations took a nose dive in 2008, anti-Americanism had been the theme of Philippine nationalism. The RAND Corporation said in a report that before 2008 China had seldom appeared in daily political discussions in the Philippines. Yet as the South China Sea disputes flared up, talk of a China threat began to flourish in the Philippines. Duterte's downplay of the South China Sea arbitration has eased to some degree. Even so, the anti-foreign sentiment of the Philippine public has shifted from China to the US. However the future remains uncertain.

All in all, despite conflicts between Manila and Washington, their alliance will not be destroyed. If a solution to the South China Sea issue cannot be found soon, it will be wise for China to manage its differences with the Philippines and avoid letting the issue be manipulated by anti-China forces in the Philippines.

The author is a lecturer in the Institute of International Relations, China Foreign Affairs University.

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