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Foreign Policy

After Duterte: Presidential Elections and the Future of Philippine-China Relations

Dec 24, 2021

American political scientist Francis Fukuyama famously underscored the necessity for distinguishing between 'what is essential and what is contingent or accidental in world history. In a similar vein, one must distinguish between contingent shifts and structural constraints, when analyzing contentious geopolitical ties. 

Over the past five years, bilateral relations between China and the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, have gone under tremendous transformation. In the words of a top Chinese diplomat, what we have witnessed, especially under Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, is a “Golden Age” in bilateral relations. In a major break from his predecessors, the Filipino president has expressed his preference for “separation” from America in favor of China, a country he purportedly “loves.  Consciously downplaying maritime spats in the South China Sea, Duterte has openly argued that if smaller nations remain “meek” and “humble,”  then they can expect “mercy” from China.   

But in his twilight months in office ahead of next year’s presidential elections, the Filipino president -- who is constitutionally confined to a single, six-year term in office -- has adopted a dramatically divergent tone vis-à-vis China. During the recently-concluded China-ASEAN Summit, Duterte declared how he “abhors” purported harassment of Philippine resupply missions in the South China Sea by Chinese vessels. Amid the latest flare up in maritime tensions over the Second Thomas Shoal, Duterte openly warned, “This does not speak well of the relations between our nations and our partnership,” while calling on the Philippines to “fully utilize…legal tools to ensure that the South China Sea remains a sea of peace, stability and prosperity.” 

On the surface, this seemingly abrupt shift in Duterte’s tone may be driven by contingent elements, namely public pressure at home amid the standoff over the disputed shoal in the South China Sea. Upon closer examination, however, it’s clear that not only Duterte, but also his successor next year, will come under growing pressure from the public as well as the defense establishment to take a more robust stance vis-à-vis China. Nevertheless, calibrated assertiveness and geopolitical pragmatism will likely be the two defining elements of Philippine foreign policy for the foreseeable future. 

Potential Successors 

Following weeks of rollercoaster political maneuvers, the lineup of Duterte’s potential successors is now effectively finalized. By all indications, neither presidential daughter, Sara Duterte, nor long-time presidential aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, will be in contention for the presidency anytime soon. This has left the sole son of former Filipino strongman, Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., as the clear frontrunner in next year’s presidential elections. 

Among top contenders, Bongbong Marcos is the only candidate to have openly backed full continuity in Philippine foreign policy towards China by emphasizing the futility of confrontation and the value of robust economic cooperation with the Asian powerhouse. 

“The policy of engagement, which the Duterte government is implementing, although it is criticized, it is the right way to go. Because whatever we do, we can’t go to war,” said Marcos during one of his public engagements. “We don’t want to do that, I don’t think the Chinese want to go to war with us. Certainly, we don’t want to go to war with China.”

Incidentally, his father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was among first top U.S. allies in Asia to open communication channels and formalize bilateral relations with Maoist China in the mid-1970s. No less than then anointed successor, Bongbong, met Chairman Mao, who warmly welcomed the Marcos family during a state visit to Beijing. Anticipating warm ties under a Marcos Jr. presidency, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian has openly fawned over the current frontrunner to succeed Duterte next year. 

During a recent meeting with Marcos Jr., the Chinese envoy made clear references to history by placing photographs in the background, which “recor[d] historic moments of China-Philippines relations, one of which on the top has depicted the historic scene of then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and then Philippine President Ferdinand E. Marcos signing the Joint Communique on the Establishment of Diplomatic Relations between our two counties on June 9, 1975." 

Philippine Vice-President Maria Leonor “Leni” Robredo, the de facto leader of the opposition, who has mostly ranked second in key surveys, has indicated a more radical departure from Duterte’s policy by (i) emphasizing robust defense relations with traditional Western allies as well as (ii) promoting the 2016 arbitral tribunal award at The Hague, which Beijing has rejected, as the ultimate basis for management of disputes with China in the South China Sea. 

As for boxer-turned-politician Emmanuel “Manny” Pacquiao, the former Duterte ally has also adopted a far tougher stance on China and even gone so far as accusing Duterte of soft-pedalling vis-à-vis the maritime disputes. But to best understand the likely direction of Philippine policy, one perhaps should look at the position of more ‘centrist’ candidates, who are consciously tweaking their foreign policy messaging based on the pulse of the people as well as the sentiments of the defense establishment

Structural Limits 

Manila Mayor Francisco “Isko” Moreno, who has placed third in most surveys, has advocated for a more ‘middle course’ on practically every major issue, including the South China Sea disputes. In recent months, he has at once emphasized the value of engagement with China as well as strengthening the Philippines’ defensive capabilities. 

For instance, Moreno has backed potential joint energy exploration agreements in the South China Sea in order to de-escalate tensions and foster a cooperative relationship with China. At the same time, he has supported revitalized military ties with Washington, while warning of swift and decisive response against any Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen and vessels in the disputed areas. 

To understand the wisdom behind the foreign policy posturing of top centrist candidates such as Moreno, who is consciously trying to win supporters from across the political spectrum, one must analyze the ebbs and flows of broader public opinion. On the one hand, it’s true that the U.S. enjoys high favorability ratings among Filipinos, often among the highest in the world. It’s also true that China has historically suffered from very low trust ratings among Filipinos. 

According to the Social Weather Stations (SWS) polling agency, for instance, China’s net trust rating among Filipinos was only positive in nine out of 53 total surveys conducted across more than two decades, specifically from 1994 to 2020. Last year, China’s net trust rating reached -36 percent, a stark contrast to the majority trust rating enjoyed by the likes of the U.S., Japan and Australia. 

Nevertheless, the Filipino public has shown a high level of pragmatism in terms of its foreign policy outlook in recent years. According to a Pulse Asia survey in 2017, close to half of Filipinos (47 percent) were open to developing warmer defense ties with China and Russia amid doubts over American commitment to defend the Philippines in an event of conflict in the South China Sea. 

Meanwhile, a Pew Research Centre survey in the same year showed that the number of Filipinos who preferred economic engagement over confrontation with China amid territorial disputes increased from 43 percent in 2015 to 67 percent in 2017. The same survey showed that a majority (53 percent) of Filipinos expressed confidence in Chinese leadership. 

Based on a preliminary survey, which I and colleagues at the National Defense College of the Philippines conducted in 2018, it also became clear to us that next-generation military leaders are broadly open to engagement with China, while emphasizing the importance of existing defense ties with the U.S. and other traditional allies. 

What seems to have soured public views towards Beijing, however, is the latter’s non-fulfillment of large-scale investment pledges to the Philippines as well as repeated reports of Chinese vessels’ harassment of  fishermen and soldiers across the South China Sea in recent years. In short, there is a broadly pragmatic public and defense elite openness to a results-based foreign policy vis-à-vis China, especially if the Asian powerhouse offers tangible concessions in the disputed areas as well as large-scale infrastructure investments in the Philippines. 

In the Philippines’ boisterous democracy, where public opinion and the sentiments of the military reign supreme, whoever becomes Duterte’s successor will come under tremendous pressure to adopt calibrated assertiveness vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes, in particular, but also a measure of geopolitical pragmatism vis-à-vis China, in general. These will be the Fukuyaman ‘essential’ factors, which will shape Philippine foreign policy beyond short-term contingencies.  

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