I’m in China this week for the seventh iteration of the Xiangshan Forum and related meetings. Unsurprisingly, one of the top items of interest among Chinese interlocutors has been Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his approach towards China, especially given his upcoming trip to Beijing later this month.
Ahead of the much-awaited voyage, much of the focus seems to be on particular deliverables – from economic assistance from Beijing to some accommodation on the South China Sea disputes –that will signal a new chapter in Sino-Philippine relations. Though these details are no doubt important, I’ve also been encouraging observers to look beyond this particular trip and put Sino-Philippine relations in broader perspective. That means keeping four points in mind.
First, Duterte’s opening to China is not as new or unexpected as some make it out to be. Indeed, as I have emphasized before, Duterte is just the latest in a line of Philippine leaders who has tried to balance relations with the United States, China as well as other partners with varying degrees of success (See: “The Risks of Duterte’s China and South China Sea Policy”). Gloria Macapagal Arroyo initially and explicitly sought to deepen the Philippines’ hedging position vis-à-vis Washington and Beijing, but ultimately ended up going too far in her engagement with Beijing, while the Benigno Aquino III era saw Manila move much closer to the United States in large part due to China’s growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Duterte is now trying to move the dial slightly back towards Beijing, a shift that was ultimately bound to happen irrespective of who Aquino’s successor would be, but is also far from assured. What has been surprising to seasoned observers has been the speed and degree to which Duterte has moved to both strengthen ties with China while simultaneously (rhetorically at least) undermining the U.S.-Philippine alliance, which was and continues to be critical to Manila’s security and prosperity.
Second, within the Duterte administration, which is still in its early stages, it is not exactly clear how China will fit in its overall foreign policy approach. Duterte and other administration officials have talked about an “independent foreign policy.” But thus far all we know is that this means (at least rhetorically) less dependence on the United States and more diversification with other players. How much of that diversification ends up going to China, as opposed to other actors like Japan, which he has also been engaging with some promise, remains to be seen (See: “Philippines-Japan Defense Relations Under Duterte: Full Steam Ahead?”).
Chances are this will only become clear once Duterte completes visits to key countries beyond just the current ones to China, Russia, and Japan, and perhaps even meets the new U.S. president next year when he or she attends the ASEAN Summit in the Philippines (“The US-Philippine Alliance in the Duterte Era: A Path to Recalibration”). This is important to keep in mind because given Duterte’s pragmatic outlook and straightforward style, his foreign policy will likely also take shape in response to opportunities that particular partners present rather than just as part of a clear strategic frame or ideological bent.
Third, process-wise, how the mechanics of Philippine engagement with China will actually play out is still in transition, a process that will likely continue after the visit. Though much of the public focus over the past few months has been largely on Duterte’s special envoy Fidel Ramos, those close to the president say privately that Duterte’s warm vibe towards China has in fact already led to the activation of a number of other channels in Sino-Philippine relations, including among business networks as well as think tanks and institutions, reflecting the complexity increasingly seen in ASEAN states’ engagement with China.
Though this complexity forms the backbone of a potentially rich and diversified relationship, managing this complexity by coordinating various channels and avoiding capture by specific interest groups is a major challenge. We have already gotten a taste of that with the recent public revelations of tensions between Ramos and Duterte after the former’s trip to Beijing was postponed, and how that plays out will be key to watch. But that is really the tip of the iceberg. There are also concerns, for example, about how the Duterte administration will manage the business community to ensure that it plays a useful role but also does not get in the way of the realization of broader national interests. New factors are also being added into the mix as well, such as the appointment of a new Philippine ambassador to China.
Fourth, in terms of issues, though we are likely to see both sides tout certain breakthroughs during the visit – from tourism to infrastructure to people-to-people – we will in fact have to wait and see whether the initial opportunities they lay out and the short-term solutions they propose to manage certain challenges will in fact materialize and then sustain. For those familiar with China’s relations with Southeast Asian states, it is quite common for highly-advertised opportunities to not be followed through on and for low-boil challenges to heat up again and undermine cooperation. Furthermore, what is equally if not more important in the case of Duterte’s visit to China is not the areas of cooperation we see on a press or joint statement, but the private (and likely colorful) disagreements that occur behind closed doors as well as the terms the two sides reach for cooperation to advance ties.
Take the South China Sea issue, for example. Ahead of the visit, sources from both sides say that a logical place for them to start would be allowing Filipino fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal, since it is an initial move that would have particular resonance for Duterte given his practical, populist bent. But the thing to watch will be how Beijing and Manila manage the broader South China Sea challenge even as such interim confidence-building steps are taken, especially in the event of a crisis there or disagreements elsewhere that may cause Duterte to recalibrate his initial approach. Given the deep distrust between the two sides on this issue, caution is warranted.
In addition, attention must also be given to the terms under which certain concessions are made, whether public or private, and whether these make sense for Philippine national interests. On the South China Sea, there have already been worries about what Duterte – overzealous as he is about the rewards from a Sino-Philippine confidence-building process – would be willing to risk, whether it be in terms of Manila’s relationships with other major countries including the United States or even its adherence to international law and the Philippine constitution. As I have mentioned before, engaging China brings both high rewards and major risks given lingering concerns about Chinese links to corruption from the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo days, its South China Sea assertiveness during the Aquino years, and its tainted image within Philippine public opinion even today (See: “The Truth About Duterte’s Popularity in the Philippines”).
The perception from media accounts is that Duterte’s embrace of China has left Washington wringing its hands in distress while Beijing is rubbing its hands with glee. The reality is in fact much more complex. We are just more than three months into the six-year term of a president who has little foreign policy experience, but has signaled quite a lot of change, with a bold and risky icebreaker in Sino-Philippine relations that has best a checkered past and a cautious, frosty attitude towards Manila’s most important ally the United States.
Little wonder, then, that more seasoned observers of the Sino-Philippine relationship remain cautiously optimistic at best about its longer term trajectory even as they expect significant progress in the short term. “If this is how he treats old allies, how will he treat new friends?” one Chinese interlocutor familiar with the planning of the visit told me earlier this week, referring to Duterte’s treatment of the United States and what that might mean for Beijing. “He [Duterte] is bold, but also at the same time unpredictable.”