BEIJING (Global Times) – Since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, Sino-Philippine relations have seen a turnaround and marked improvement. Recently, Harry Roque, the presidential spokesman of the Philippines, noted that continuous progress in China-Philippines relations has brought about a lot of projects beneficial to Philippine people. However, there are some voices in the Philippines accusing the Duterte government of a weak-kneed policy toward China on the South China Sea dispute, saying that the Philippines should turn back to the US for support and cooperation.
Here, I will analyze the source of these disparate opinions in the Philippines and their impact on Manila’s policy toward China.
The Philippines is a republic with a presidential form of government wherein power is equally divided among its three branches: legislature, executive and judiciary. There are political parties to contest elections. It is commonly seen that Philippine politicians change parties to increase their chances of winning elections.
There is no significant ideological difference among the main parties in the Philippines. Hence, there is no ideological split between them over domestic and foreign affairs. It is a political practice in the country that self-centered individuals invoke national interest to shroud their true intentions to meet narrow ends.
Since July 12, two years after the Philippines won its arbitration case against China, a lot of banners with the words “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China” have appeared overnight on footbridges in Metro Manila, the Philippines, which is a possible reference to a joke by President Duterte that the country can be a province of China. As far as the author can see, this farce was possibly a ploy by Duterte’s political rivals, who, due to their resentment against his policy toward China and the South China Sea, were seeking to parody his foreign policy.
Although there is no sharp difference among political groups in the Philippines in terms of their attitude toward China, the Philippine military is quite clear about its approach to Beijing. According to my observation and research, the Philippine military has regarded China as a potential adversary as a result of the South China Sea dispute. Moreover, Manila has maintained close ties with the US military, and the two countries have signed a Mutual Defense Treaty and a Visiting Forces Agreement. Such institutional cooperation has fostered strong pro-American sentiment within the Philippine military, which may not seek to develop close relations with China.
The impact of the US on the Philippines is more than what the Philippines military believes it to be. With a colonial history of about 50 years, Philippine society has long embraced Western culture, and established close ties with Washington, which have contributed to Manila’s unique sense of closeness to the US.
Another important factor that impacts Filipinos’ attitude toward China is the nationalist sentiment fanned by day-to-day issues. Essentially, the Philippines is a country with several domestic problems. Filipinos have little interest in foreign policy. They are more concerned about economic development and improvement in living standards. They may protest against the Chinese government’s South China Sea policy, yet may also stage a demonstration outside the US Embassy in the Philippines. There are indeed hardliners against China among Philippine politicians, but the number is small. We must avoid the temptation to label them “pro-China” or “anti-China” because of their stance on certain issues.
In the final analysis, the Philippine president has the ultimate say in foreign policy. If endowed with outstanding political capacity, Mr Duterte will be able to bridge domestic political divisions and reverse the direction of foreign policy. However, there is still a long way to go to cultivate pro-China forces within the Philippines.
Dai Fan is deputy dean of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Jinan University.