By Anna Malindog-Uy
The “rapprochement” policy (the re-establishment of cordial and friendly relations) towards China which Duterte pursued upon ascending to the office of the presidency in 2016, abandoning the previous administration’s not only antagonistic relations and stance towards China but pro-American leaning is one of the legacies of the Duterte administration.
Indeed, Duterte has spent more than five years in repositioning the Philippines from a staunch pro-American stance toward a neutral one pursuing an “independent foreign policy,” intending to find a “geopolitical nonaligned position” or a “middle ground” between the US and China, where the Philippines remains a friend of the former but at the same time deepens its friendship with China on the economic front; maximizing the country’s national interests.
Hence, the Philippines was indeed able to redefine its relationships with its most important partners like China and the US, positioning the country in a far better situation to advance its interests in an evolving, ever-volatile, and tension-driven regional order, realities and configurations.
The rapprochement policy of the Duterte administration towards China is a pragmatic decision because if nothing has been done to this effect, the Philippines will be caught “flat-footed” by the changes in the Asia-Pacific region power structure.
One has to take cognizance of the geopolitical reality that, despite the noise, posturing, and grandstanding of the US and its aggressive “Pivot to Asia”, or the so-called “US Indo-Pacific Strategy” aimed at undermining China economically, politically, and militarily, while declaring that it has a “national interest” in the South China Sea (SCS); it’s only a matter of time that a complete shift in the global center of power in Asia will take place. Such a change is “inevitable and irremediable.”
To note, China is ultimately at the center of this shift in the power structure in the Asia-Pacific region and will eventually be the predominant power – if not already – in the Asia Pacific region and beyond. Thus, the Philippines need to attain some margin of flexibility and latitude to maneuver around the big powers and this has been achieved under a Duterte presidency to a considerable extent.
Likewise, under Duterte’s presidency, the Philippines have forged deeper friendly and cooperative relations with China on issues and matters where there already exists mutual and cooperative understanding in areas where the two countries have no disputes or differences such as economics and trade, science and technology, cultural exchanges, and people-to-people exchanges, and tries to resolve its differences and conflict of interests with China more specifically in the South China Sea (SCS) through diplomatic and peaceful means bilaterally and multilaterally within the ambit of ASEAN.
This foreign policy shift to some extent boosts the mutual understanding, trust, and confidence between the two nations and was re-affirmed by President Duterte in his pre-recorded weekly “Talk to the People” address last Monday (13 December 2022) where he said that, “the Philippines’ good relations with China remain, stressing the superpower was the “first one” to provide COVID-19 vaccines when supplies were scarce at that time.
The West Philippine Sea (WPS) issue which is the center spot of the differences between the Philippines and China is another matter separate from the friendship of the two countries,” Duterte added.
To note, the first batch of donated Chinese vaccines arrived in the country as early as 28 February of this year (2021) and was transported by China’s People’s Liberation Army plane, which made possible the launch of the national vaccination program of the Philippines on 1 March 2021. Whereas, the fifth batch of two million doses of Sinovac vaccines donated by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) arrived last Tuesday (14 December 2021). To date, in total, China provided and supplied consistently more than 57 million Chinese Covid-19 vaccine doses to the Philippines both through commercial procurement and donation.
To date, Chinese vaccines are not only the first Covid-19 vaccines that arrived in the country but also the major source of Covid-19 vaccines in the Philippines at the moment.
China also extended anti-pandemic assistance to Filipinos in many ways like the continuous supply of anti-pandemic materials such as medicines, testing kits, face masks, PPEs, and others goods, which dramatically and significantly helped in the effective and efficient Covid-19 response of the Philippines.
China also donated around 10,000 metric tons (MT) of rice to the Philippines that benefitted more than a million Filipinos in this time of the pandemic.
It has also donated around 4,000 tablets to help Filipino students across the country in their distance/blended learning programs/studies and provided government scholarships to more than 500 teachers and students nationwide amounting to more or less 50 million pesos in total.
It also distributed millions of food bags/packs that benefited almost one million families and provided livelihood projects benefitting many Filipinos in this time of the pandemic.
Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation
Furthermore, the Philippines-China bilateral relations have not only improved under the Duterte administration but have been upgraded to a “comprehensive strategic cooperation.” Indeed, the ties between the two countries have improved dramatically under a Duterte presidency despite differences as exemplified by the eight times face-to-face meetings between President Duterte and President Xi Jinping which boosted up the deepening friendship and mutual understanding between the two countries. Even in this time of the pandemic, the two leaders are in touch with each other through the so-called “cloud diplomacy” via phone calls and exchanging of letters and messages.
Last 27 October 2021, President Xi has a phone conversation with President Duterte where the two leaders reached an important consensus and discussed the future cooperation of the two countries. President Xi expressed that China attaches great importance to its bilateral relations with the Philippines and supports the Philippines’ independent foreign policy of peace and cooperation.
According to President Xi, China is ready to deepen friendship and mutual trust with the Philippines, stay committed to good neighborliness and friendship and ensure the long-term and stable development of bilateral relations along the right track.
Indeed, the Philippines-China relations have not only gained some new vitality and was reinvigorated under the Duterte administration but likewise yielded fruits and tangible benefits for the country and its people and it ushered the “Renaissance of Philippines-China Relations.”
Economics and Trade
By the same token, the Philippines has benefited also economically from the warming relationship with China, which is quite important as the country aims to have a robust bounce back from the economic devastation and recession caused by the pandemic.
To date, China remains the largest trading partner of the Philippines. It is now the country’s number one trading partner, number one import source, the number two export market, a major foreign investor, and the second-largest source of tourists of the Philippines.
For instance, in the first ten months of 2021, the country’s export to China was around $18 billion, with a 15 percent year-on-year increase and accounting for 29 percent of the country’s total export volume. In the first half of 2021, China’s investment in the Philippines has increased by 231 percent compared with last year (2020).
On another note, during the first seven months (January to July) of this year (2021), China’s non-financial direct investment in the country reached $110 million, with a year-on-year increase of 36 percent. For example, DITO, a flagship telecom project by China Telecom is expected to obtain a $5 billion investment and create more than 30,000 jobs in the country.
Whereas, Panhua Group’s Integrated Steel Mill project, which is under construction, has an investment amounting to $3.5 billion on its phase 1, and is expected to double the annual steel output in the country.
Concerning China’s support of the Duterte’s administration flagship Build Build Build (BBB) program, it donated two bridges, the Estrella-Pantaleon (E-P) Bridge which was completed last June 2021, and the Binondo-Intramuros (B-I) Bridge, which is expected to be completed within this year or early next year.
Whereas the Chico River Pump Irrigation project is expected to be completed within this year or early next year, and the Kaliwa Dam project is under construction. Other government-to-government projects include the Samal Island-Davao City Connector Project which is in progress amounting to billions of dollars.
Scientific and Technological (S&T) Cooperation
Moreover, the renaissance of Philippines-China relations extends to the cooperation of both countries on science and technology. For instance, after two decades of hard work between the two sides, the Philippines-Sino Center for Agricultural Technology (PhilSCAT) becomes the emblem of the agricultural cooperation between the Philippines and China.
It extended agricultural technical training to more than 15,000 Filipino professional technicians and local farmers, which benefitted more than 134,000 farmers and boosted agricultural outputs by 308,000 tons, equivalent to an increase of about 3 kilograms of rice for each Filipino.
Other S&T cooperation projects between the two countries also include aquaculture, corn planting, sericulture development, rubber industry promotion, and research. Also, telecommunication companies like Huawei, Fiberhome, and ZTE are working and in cooperation with Philippine universities and research institutions to jointly train Filipino talents and set up laboratories for 5G technology.
Also, Chinese vaccine manufacturers are exploring possibilities with their Filipino colleagues and counterparts discussing cooperation in vaccine research and development and clinical trial, while Alibaba, Tencent, Bytedance, and other Chinese Internet companies have invested in Bit Data, cloud calculation, and digital economy in the country and provided technical and financial support to their partners in the Philippines.
In retrospect, the renaissance of the friendly and good bilateral relations between the Philippines and China despite existing differences is one of the legacies of the Duterte administration that yielded tangible and concrete benefits for both countries and their peoples. This legacy of President Duterte and the gains it generated for the country is worth pursuing whoever becomes the next president after the May 2022 national elections.
On another note, Filipinos must take cognizance of the fact that the country’s differences with China over the disputed waters of the SCS are just a small part of its bilateral relations with China. The Philippines should therefore focus on the positive aspects of that bilateral relation which bring real and tangible economic benefits to the country, while actively resolving its differences with China on the disputed waters of SCS through peaceful means, diplomacy, and dialogue at all levels possible.
The Philippines and China and the rest of the claimant-states should also actively seek and explore joint bilateral and multilateral cooperation on fishery management, environmental cooperation, and oil and gas joint development and exploration among others, which are important economic issues that might trigger potential conflicts if not addressed, but then again, might boost and trigger the mutual trust and confidence between the two countries if given the chance, attention, and due consideration, which may serve as a “win-win” compromise that will not only benefit both countries but may trigger the resolution of disputes between the two over the disputed SCS.
Indeed, President Duterte’s legacy when it comes to his independent foreign policy is anchored on the fact that the Philippines is neither beholden nor a pawn to anyone and any countries nor any superpowers. Indeed, under Duterte’s leadership, the Philippines was able to broaden the boundaries of its diplomacy beyond its traditional Western allies like the US.
The country was able to build productive ties with countries like China willing to engage with the Philippines based on equality, mutual trust, and respect.