Last October 24, China shipped 3 million more Sinovac doses to the Philippines, including 1 million free doses, making a total of 3 million Covid-19 vaccine donations to its neighbor. It raises Beijing’s health outreach to the Southeast Asian country. The move follows President Xi Jinping’s commitment to support Philippine infrastructure modernization and local vaccine production in a telephone call with President Rodrigo Duterte last August. These developments showcase how traditionally uneasy ties have transformed in the last five years, a sea change that is now on the line as elections in the Philippines fast approaches.
In recent years, bilateral relations were described as the “return of spring after a harsh winter.” The “soft landing” pursued after the release of a 2016 arbitration award allowed for a reset in ties. The amiable atmosphere actively fostered by both sides, despite persistent challenges, allowed them to weather much of the storm. From his inaugural State of the Nation Address in 2016, to his two successive speeches before the UN General Assembly last year and last month and his statement before the recently concluded 2021 ASEAN Leaders’ Summit, Duterte continued to assert the landmark ruling without causing a rupture in relations. Both countries focused on expanding economic linkages, strengthening political ties, and managing differences. High-level visits, dialogues, and new platforms to handle disputes helped establish guardrails for the relations. With the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, access to vaccines and support for economic recovery became new facets for cooperation.
Despite constraints, both sides showed openness in enhancing political and security bonds. China was the first country outside Southeast Asia that Duterte visited in 2016. He has since made five trips to the country and plans to have a final one before he steps down from office. He attended two Belt and Road Forums in 2017 and 2019, respectively, and spoke before the Boao Forum for Asia in Hainan in 2018. He was a special guest in the opening ceremony of the 2019 FIBA World Cup hosted by China and watched a game played by the Philippine national team against the Italians in Foshan, Guangdong. Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Allan Peter Cayetano made four trips to China, while current Secretary Teodoro Locsin has made six trips thus far. Locsin’s travel to Tengchong in Yunnan last year was the first international trip he made since the onset of the pandemic. Manila also took part in Chinese-initiated security venues, sending Defense Undersecretary Cesar Yano to attend the eighth Xiangshan Forum, China’s version of the Shangrila Dialogue, in 2018.
On China’s end, Xi visited Manila in 2018. State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi made four trips, including a 2018 stop in Duterte’s hometown of Davao to inaugurate China’s third consulate. Vice Premier Wang Yang also toured the country in 2017. The Communist Party of China (CPC) held talks with the ruling PDP-Laban party. Duterte was also invited to speak in the virtual CPC and World Political Parties Summit last July in commemoration of the centenary of China’s ruling party.
To handle their maritime row, the two countries convened a bilateral consultation mechanism which had since met six times. A similar format was later established by China with other South China Sea disputants, notably Malaysia and Indonesia. Philippine and Chinese coast guards also held three meetings. While these channels did not put an end to sea incidents or efforts by both sides to bolster their respective positions in choppy waters, they helped avert a crisis as what happened during the 2012 Scarborough Shoal standoff. The two sides also explored joint development for offshore oil and gas in the contested sea, the prospects of which remain uncertain given legal challenges and local opposition on the part of Manila.
Despite the rhetoric and bluster, friendly relations did not waver the country’s resolve to defend its maritime interests. Duterte sent his alter-ego, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and the country’s top military brass to visit Pag-Asa (Thitu), the seat of the country’s possessions in the West Philippine Sea, and presided over a symbolic flag-raising ceremony in 2017. Manila continued to protest the massing of Chinese vessels in its western exclusive economic zone, efforts to interfere in the activities of its fisherfolk, and Chinese regulations that infringe on its sovereign rights. This includes Beijing’s unilateral fishing ban and a new coast guard law that gives license to Chinese maritime authorities to use force. The Philippines also invested in modernizing its navy, coast guard, and air force, intensified its patrols, upgraded the facilities in its administered features in the flashpoint, restored a key military accord with its treaty ally, the United States, and expanded its security partners. All these took place without stretching bilateral relations to its limits.
On the economic front, China has sustained its position as the Philippines’ largest trade partner since 2016. It has become the country’s largest import source, third-largest export market, second-largest investor, and fastest-growing tourist market pre-pandemic. Manila was the country guest of honor for the second year in a row in the annual China International Fair for Trade and Investment held last September in Xiamen, where the country bagged further investment pledges. The country is set to join the fourth China International Import Expo this November as it did in the past three years since the world’s biggest annual import-themed trade fair opened in Shanghai in 2018. The expo allowed Filipino exporters, notably those in the food and agricultural sectors, to tap into the huge Chinese market. Such rapid growth in trade, investments, and tourism delivered the economic windfall from improved ties. However, the connectivity aspect continues to face hurdles. Chinese-backed infrastructure projects were slow to materialize owing to Manila’s absorptive capacity, bureaucratic gridlock, persistent doubt about Beijing’s motives, and delays due to the pandemic. As past projects, like the National Broadband Network and Northrail during the previous Arroyo administration, were scuttled due to leadership change, Chinese contractors have reason to be edgy about the impact of the coming elections on their investments.
The turnaround from the lowest point in the relations to a “golden age of partnership” shows how leadership transition can trigger a sea change in bilateral ties. Hence, elections next year will expectedly inject uncertainty about the future. The territorial and maritime row and ties with Beijing are likely to be high in security and foreign policy debates among candidates. The Duterte government will be hard-pressed to show that the gains from cultivating friendly relations outweigh the costs, a difficult predicament complicated by Covid-19, which quashed economic advances, stalled infrastructure projects, and dimmed business outlook. A victory by the administration or its allies in the polls may augur continuity in the relations. But with the convoluted nature of Philippine domestic politics and the fluid geopolitical landscape, even such an outcome is far from guaranteed.
With the campaign season drawing near, it is not unlikely for candidates to take a strong posture on the West Philippine Sea. How much of these can be carried out once they are seated and confronted with complex realities remains to be seen. Given China’s growing role in the Philippine economy and the grave impact of a conflict over the longstanding maritime flashpoint, a mix of deterrence and diplomacy may hold the key in growing ties and keeping the peace.