Philippines’ Duterte will keep close ties with China

By Xue Li Source:Global Times Published: 2017/7/19 21:13:39

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

After taking power in June 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte quickly adjusted his country's strategy toward China, normalizing relations and warming up bilateral economic ties within a very short period of time. In just one year, the Philippines has reversed its marginalized position on the road map for China's Belt and Road initiative. From past experience, many Chinese scholars worry that Duterte's current China policy may change again and thus disapprove of spending too many strategic resources on the country.

So, will Duterte maintain his China strategy? My answer is: It is highly possible for Duterte to continue his current China policy until the end of his term in 2022.

The Philippines' economic center of gravity is Manila and surrounding areas, where the middle class is large and the US is influential. Big families from the region are always pro-US and the Aquino family is a typical representative of them. Former President Benigno Aquino III pursued a pro-US and anti-China policy, even though it was not conducive to the maximization of national interests. Duterte gained public support due to a reputation for being incorruptible, support for his fight against narcotics, and his efforts to improve people's livelihood through social security regulation. One characteristic of the political ecology in the Philippines is family politics. Politicians without the support of big families have to rely on a good public reputation. The southern region of the country, where Duterte accumulated political capital, suffers from economic backwardness, a drug epidemic, and religious extremism. Additionally, murders of local people during the US colonial period have a deep impression on people living in the region. Under this background, Duterte changed the Philippines' pro-US foreign policy after he took power last year.

The Philippines appropriately reduced military and security cooperation with the US. Duterte temporarily set aside the South China Sea arbitration decision and strove to develop closer ties with China through various measures, which has received an enthusiastic response from Beijing. The Philippines' political relations with China have greatly improved, while bilateral economic cooperation substantially increased. Duterte has also paid close attention to the country's relations with Japan, the Philippines' largest source of investment. All those efforts will help the Philippines' economy. US aid to allies focuses mainly on security, accompanied by an absence of large-scale investment. Duterte's strategy is more in line with Philippine national interests than Aquino's policy, so it is a reasonable choice to take the current path.

Duterte has no reason to substantially adjust his current South China Sea policy. He is focusing on domestic issues and thus unwilling to spend too much energy on the thorny problem of the South China Sea. It will take a really long time to solve the dispute over the South China Sea. Affected by the domestic political situation of the Philippines and pressure from other countries, Duterte may sometimes utter tough words toward China in the South China Sea tensions, but he will not necessarily take tangible action. The harm will be limited.

Duterte steers the ship of state relying on not emotion-based foreign policy but strategy that has been carefully weighed. Duterte's diplomatic thinking is: keep an appropriate distance from the US in military cooperation but don't give up the US-Philippines military alliance; develop closer ties with Japan to gain economic benefits; make tensions in the South China Sea controllable; and try its best to strengthen economic cooperation with China, while paying attention to relations with the EU, Russia and India.

Duterte's foreign policy creates a relatively favorable atmosphere for easing tensions in the South China Sea. The domestic political situation of Vietnam and Malaysia is also good for bringing the countries to the negotiation table. Additionally, US President Donald Trump's "America First" policy may affect how deeply the US intervenes in the tensions in the South China Sea. There will be a window in time for countries who have claims in the South China Sea to properly settle disputes through negotiation, and China should seize the opportunity.

The author is director of the Department of International Strategy at the Institute of World Economics and Politics under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Posted in: INSIDER'S EYE

blog comments powered by Disqus