“Philippines-China Déjà Vu” by Malcolm Cook

2019/39, 3 May 2019

Current Philippine-China relations have a strong sense of deja vu. The trajectory of Philippine-China relations to the mid-point of the Duterte administration is similar to that from 2000 to the 2007 mid-term elections under the Macapagal Arroyo administration. If the trajectory of Philippine-China relations in the second half of the Duterte administration continues to track that of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration then the high-water mark of bilateral relations under the Duterte administration has past already. Domestic political problems emanating from President Duterte’s close embrace and favouritism towards China will only mount.

President Macapagal Arroyo came to power in 2000 seeking better economic, diplomatic and military relations with China, downplaying the South China Sea disputes, and supporting joint development of energy resources with China in the Philippine exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. In 2005, when Chinese President Hu Jintao was in the Philippines on a state visit, President Macapagal-Arroyo proclaimed a “golden moment” in Philippine-China relations.

Yet, from the mid-term elections of 2007 to the end of term in 2010, Philippine-China relations became more and more problematic for the Macapagal-Arroyo administration. Corruption concerns with a major telecom contract signed with Chinese firm ZTE (that was later cancelled) featured heavily in the mid-term campaign. In 2008 the Philippines did not renew the joint marine seismic undertaking with China signed in 2003 after strong domestic criticism that the agreement was unconstitutional and undermined Philippine sovereignty.  In the 2010 elections, the opposition Benigno Aquino and Liberal Party victorious campaigns criticized repeatedly to good effect Macapagal-Arroyo’s close embrace of China.

President Duterte has embraced closer economic, diplomatic and military relations with China more fervently and without nuance than Macapagal-Arroyo. In his first state visit to China in October 2016 he aligned himself ideologically with China and later expressed his personal love for Xi Jinping. Negotiations over joint development in the Philippine exclusive economic zone are back on and the president has designated key infrastructure projects to be funded only by Chinese loans and led by Chinese firms.

Mounting concerns with a range of issues emanating from Duterte’s embrace of China from illegal Chinese workers in the Philippines, problematic Chinese infrastructure loans, and renewed Chinese bullying in the Philippine exclusive economic zone are again headlining the mid-term election campaign. Even senatorial candidates aligned with the president are joining in the chorus of criticism.

More than Macapagal-Arroyo, Duterte’s close embrace of China is at odds with Filipino views on China. The more problems that the media, bureaucracy, and legislature expose, the more politically costly this embrace becomes. In the last three years of the Macapagal-Arroyo administration, the Philippine embrace of China loosened as its domestic political costs rose. Early signs are that this may be repeated in the last three years of the Duterte administration.

Dr Malcolm Cook is Senior Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.  No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.