On Wednesday, China turned over military assistance to the Philippines in a high-profile ceremony at a former U.S. airbase attended by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The development was just the latest sign of Beijing’s growing security role in the longtime U.S. treaty ally, even as questions continue to remain about both its intentions and actions as well as the sustainability of Duterte’s so-called independent foreign policy.
China’s deepening security role in the Philippines in the Duterte era has become a familiar story to those who monitor Asian security affairs closely. His pursuit of a so-called independent foreign policy – which seeks to diversify ties away from Manila’s traditional ally the United States and toward other new partners like China and Russia – has opened the door for better defense ties between Manila and Beijing (See: “The Limits of Duterte’s China-US Rebalance”).
Though the pace of defense cooperation has been predictably slower than the rhetoric might suggest, we have seen some significant moves, from assistance in Duterte’s infamous war on drugs to closer coast guard cooperation (See: “What’s Behind the New China-Philippines Coast Guard Exercise?”).
On military equipment specifically, things have progressed a bit slower, with Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua making offers last December and a letter of intent inked with Poly Technologies – one of China’s top state-owned defense manufacturing and exporting firms – during Duterte’s visit to China for the Belt and Road Forum in May (See: “Will Duterte’s Philippines Now Buy Arms From China?”).
That said, the current crisis in Marawi in the southern Philippines has no doubt served as a catalyst to speed up the operationalization of the relationship between the two countries. In the same way, the siege of Marawi highlighted the significance of assistance from Manila’s traditional partners like Washington and Canberra, which Duterte has not been as keen to emphasize (See: “US Terror Aid to Philippines Signals Enduring Defense Ties Under Duterte”).
On June 28, Zhao Jianhua presided over a ceremonial turnover of military assistance from Beijing to Manila at Clark Air Base in Pampanga. The high-profile ceremony, which was attended by Duterte, saw Beijing provide assistance worth 370 million pesos ($7.3 million), comprising around 3,000 rifles and 6 million pieces of ammunition. The previous day, Zhao had also given 15 million pesos (less than $300,000) for the rehabilitation of Marawi.
The symbolism of Chinese military assistance being granted on a former U.S. air force base to a U.S. ally was not missed by Philippine media outlets. And, substantively, Philippine and Chinese officials both highlighted the seriousness of the situation in Marawi, where Philippine troops have been battling Islamic State-linked militants who have besieged the city for over a month, leaving nearly 400 people killed and causing widespread displacement and ruin. Given the alarm that the event has produced in Southeast Asia and beyond, it is little surprise that Manila has been welcoming the assistance it has received.
Unsurprisingly, both sides have also been keen to talk up the move as a boost for broader Sino-Philippine relations, even though this is a little hyped. Both Duterte and Zhao cast the assistance as part of a “new era” in relations, glowing language that has been a feature of Sino-Philippine relations since last year. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also played up the move at a joint news conference in China following his meeting with his Philippine counterpart Alan Peter Cayetano, saying that Beijing was ready to provide even more “necessary assistance and help” to Manila in the near future.
Amid the sensationalist headlines about both China’s growing security role in the Philippines as well as the warming of the Sino-Philippine relationship, it is worth reiterating that a few caveats need to be kept in mind.
First, though China’s assistance is no doubt welcomed, it also needs to be kept in perspective. As Zhao himself admitted, the donation Beijing has made is “not that big,” either in and of itself or relative to that of other Philippine partners. The bulk of Philippine military assistance, from surveillance capability to training, is still provided by its traditional allies and partners, including the United States and Australia.
To put China’s $7.3 million in military assistance in perspective, consider the fact that, according to the U.S. embassy, the average value of U.S. grant funding to the Philippine military over the last five years, including corresponding upgrades and training, has been about $60 million.
Second, military aid and assistance is only one indicator of the strength of any defense relationship, and the Sino-Philippine one is no exception. Though it might be easier for China to make inroads in terms of one-off donations, bolder advances in more sensitive areas like intelligence-sharing and joint drills will be more difficult. And building up relationships with the Philippine security forces, which are not really that familiar with China, will also take time.
China no doubt realizes this. In his remarks, Zhao once again said that Beijing would like to explore the possibility of much bolder cooperation in terms of joint training, intelligence sharing, and even “joint military exercises in the area of fighting terrorism.” Suffice to say that there are clear reasons why these Chinese requests have taken longer to be realized.
Third and finally, China’s assistance in the security realm also comes with its fair share of challenges, which will unsurprisingly be missing from glowing public statements about a “new era” in relations. A case in point is the fact that, earlier this week, reports surfaced that a Chinese anti-corruption watchdog had said that billionaire and philanthropist Huang Rulun was being investigated for allegations of corruption. Huang had extensive ties to the Philippines, and even funded a 10,000-bed drug rehabilitation facility in the country. Irrespective of Huang’s future, the incident nonetheless played into existing concerns among some in the Philippines about deepening ties with China.
At the ceremony, Philippine military chief Eduardo Ano quoted a Chinese proverb that says that “to remove a mountain, we begin by carrying away the little stones.” What he did not add was that that process may well be a far rockier road for both sides than the individual steps and statements may suggest. That is worth keeping in mind as we see more instances of Sino-Philippine security cooperation in the future.