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Duterte’s China policy shift: Strategy or Serendipity?

Close to marking its first year in office, the Duterte administration has turned around the country’s relations with China in a number of ways. Departing from the previous government’s strong opposition to China’s expansive claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea, Duterte has downplayed the territorial and maritime disputes in favor of pursuing close economic and political ties with China. 

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during Leader's Roundtable Summit of the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. Source: Rappler

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  • Close to marking its first year in office, the Duterte administration has turned around the country’s relations with China in a number of ways. Departing from the previous government’s strong opposition to China’s expansive claims and assertive actions in the South China Sea, Duterte has downplayed the territorial and maritime disputes in favor of pursuing close economic and political ties with China. 

    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping during Leader's Roundtable Summit of the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. Source: Rappler

    Image taken from The Philippine Star

    In November last year, Donald Trump won the United States’ Presidential elections, consequently kickstarting a new US foreign policy. During his campaign, Trump advocated a domestic-focused America and a reduced global role - threatening to move away from traditional allies, pull away from defense treaties, and withdraw from trade negotiations and partnerships.

    Although critics often point to the apparent discrepancies and unpredictability in Philippine foreign policy as expressed by its chief architect, President Rodrigo Roa Duterte, several emerging consistencies can be gathered. In the same vein as other countries that opted not to spell out the specifics of their foreign policy strategy, especially on critical and sensitive issues, in order to have ample room for maneuver and negotiation, these incipient consistencies have yet to be formally articulated in a coherent form, more so applied in reference to a certain foreign policy priority. Although not definitive, an appreciation of some of these nascent consistencies can give one a better outlook of the continuously evolving Philippine diplomacy. Furthermore, beyond his infamous rhetoric which surely played a lot in getting him Times’ 2017 Most Influential Person Award, Duterte’s actions, by and large, resonate as regional responses to the brewing US-China tussle.

    Six months after Rodrigo Duterte brought home $24 billion in pledges from China, the Philippines seems to be speeding up the implementation of the 13 bilateral agreements signed during his state visit, as these will aid the administration’s goal for the country to enter into a golden age of infrastructure.

    Bank of China

    Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte met with the top executives from Bank of China on April 8, 2017.

    Even during his candidacy for president, Duterte had been clear on his preference for friendly relations with China. In one gathering where he was invited to speak, he vowed to ask the country to help the Philippines build railways and set aside differences for the meantime. Indeed, once he was seated in office, the two neighboring states reopened bilateral talks—commencing with Duterte’s state visit in October last year. High-level meetings followed the visit to iron out implementation details of the agreements.

    Photo from Philippine Presidential Communications Operations Office

    Article II, section VII of the 1987 Philippine Constitution provides: “The State shall pursue an independent foreign policy. In its relations with other states, the paramount consideration shall be national sovereignty, territorial integrity, national interest, and the right to self-determination.” In practice, successive Philippine presidents rarely labeled Philippine foreign policy as “independent,” albeit occasionally mentioning the term as part of their rhetoric.

    In a stark departure from his predecessors, President Rodrigo Duterte has repeatedly declared that his administration “will pursue an independent foreign policy.” As to what an “independent foreign policy” means became the subject of various discussions. For their part, senior government officials have provided rather broad principles as to how such a policy would take shape. However, in a televised interview last 3 April 2017, the new Philippine top diplomat to China, Ambassador Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, provided a more detailed account of the elements of Duterte’s independent foreign policy and how it would figure in the broader strategic environment. It is thus far the most thorough explanation of an independent foreign policy to come from a Duterte administration official.

    Early in his term as Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte already made clear his penchant for an independent foreign policy. Parenthetically, part of this foreign policy thrust is the desire to have a soft landing in managing differences with China and the strategic recognition of China’s growing geoeconomic profile. This was manifest when Duterte quickly appointed a special envoy to China and made Beijing his first official state visit destination in October of last year. In his visit, Duterte announced that the “spring time” has come about in Sino-Philippine relations.

    Since then, there have been three significant positive achievements of both leaderships: the South China Sea (SCS) tensions have de-escalated, the overall bilateral relations have been normalized, and China has become more involved in Philippine domestic and socio-economic agenda. In fact, Duterte’s state visit saw commercial, corporate, public, and people-to-people diplomacy in full swing.

    The assumption of Donald Trump as the 45th president of the United States of America creates many new uncertainties for U.S. foreign policy, causing trepidation in many countries in the Asian region. Lack of knowledge in international relations and experience in statecraft by any American leader is a matter of concern for America's friends and foes alike, but to have someone now standing at the helm who has challenged U.S. foreign policy orthodoxies as much as the new president did while on the campaign trail, has many foreign leaders, economic and security planners, and analysts sitting on the edge of their seats. The fact that the previous administration is seen to have presided over its own foreign policy failures does not absolve the new one of responsibility; those failures will rather weigh heavily on its shoulders.

    How does one “make America great again,” as promised by the Trump campaign slogan? Indeed, America must be made great again for Americans, before it can be great again for the world. Considering how some of the country's core institutions that used to underpin democracy and prosperity are in such poor condition, one may have to look further and deeper for where new hope may spring.

    Photo from Forbes.com

    Japan and China are two of the Philippines’ most important neighbors and economic partners. Japan is the country’s biggest trade partner, investor and donor and the only country with which Philippines has an existing bilateral free trade agreement. Being both archipelagoes with long coastlines and with maritime and territorial disputes with neighbors, notably with China, Philippines and Japan share some common maritime security interests and challenges. China, on the other hand, is the country’s second biggest trade partner and a major potential investor in Philippine infrastructure, industry and agriculture. Philippines and China share overlapping claims in the contested South China Sea (SCS) making it imperative to develop appropriate dispute management mechanisms to prevent this issue from undermining bilateral ties, as well as contributing to regional instability. No wonder that outside ASEAN capitals, Beijing and Tokyo figured prominently in the first foreign state visits of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

    Because of the Philippines’ strategic location, geopolitical importance and burgeoning economy, it is understandable for external powers to try to obtain the Philippines’ favor.  The recent state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Manila with a stop in Duterte’s hometown of Davao, for instance, demonstrates Japan’s determination to keep its longstanding influence in the country, amidst warming Philippines-China relations and uncertainties in Philippines-US ties. However, instead of choosing between rivals Japan and China, the Philippines should realize that maintaining good relations with these two powers is important for the country’s economy and security. Pursuit of national interests through an independent foreign policy requires staying away from great power competition to avoid entanglement. It also requires that the Philippines avoids choosing one over the other for fear of foregoing the benefits of engaging both.

    Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

    Shared values and resolve to defend territorial integrity and maritime rights had long undergirded Philippine foreign policy which may help explain longstanding ties with traditional allies US and Japan. Hence, the country’s warming relations with China and Russia was considered astonishing, if not a game changer. The country does not share affinity in political ideals with these two and, in the case of China, it even has unresolved disputes over the West Philippine Sea (WPS). One may think that the country is pivoting away from its traditional allies into the fold of incompatible partners for uncertain ends or that one of Asia’s pioneer liberal democracies is anxiously drifting away from its identity. However, despite the rhetoric, a careful examination will reveal that the new Philippine government’s move is driven more by conflict avoidance and economic considerations rather than attempts to redefine the country’s politics and international alignment though President Duterte supports federalism and a more independent foreign policy. Potential change in US government disposition towards Russia under the Trump Presidency may have also played a part.

    The new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has damaged diplomatic relations for his country with his bold anti-US attitude and warming of Sino-Philippine relations. The Philippine attitude towards China has vacillated heavily. Since the founding of the Third Republic of the Philippines in 1946, there have been six distinct periods in Sino-Philippine relations: 

    The first period lasted from 1946 to 1960 when the Philippines adhered to anti-Communist party and anti-China policies, and thus was opposed to Chinese revolutionary rhetoric.

    The second period began in late 1960 and ended in 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship fell. Under the Nixon Doctrine, Sino-Philippine relations began to thaw. The Chinese leadership took measures (such as lowering fuel prices to the Philippines in 1975) to promote economic activities and speed up the establishment of diplomatic relations. This was a steady, long-term process. 

  • Presented by Prof. Chen Hanxi of the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies during his public lecture held last May 4, 2017. The lecture was co-organized by APPFI and UP Asian Center.

    Presented by Prof. Zhou Fangyin of the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies during his public lecture held last May 4, 2017. The lecture was co-organized by APPFI and UP Asian Center.

    The attached presentation was made by Prof. Raphael P.M. Lotilla as a member of the Board of Trustees of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies at a seminar on "One Belt One Road Initiative: Multilateral Promotion & Suggestions". The seminar was jointly organized by the National Institute of Global Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the Beijing Language and Culture University in Beijing, China on 27 April 2017.  Prof. Lotilla thanks PIDS researchers Mr. Jan Oseo and Ms. Christine Salazar for providing excellent research assistance. The presentation built upon previous presentations made by PIDS Fellows Dr. Danny Israel and Dr. Sonny Domingo at previous OBOR discussions. These presentations are also made available as background materials. Prof. Lotillla serves as Chair of the APPFI Board.

    An Interactive E-Book by Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio

    Click on the image to view the e-book.

    Presented by Mr. Herman Kraft during the fourth panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Mr. Chito Sta. Romana during the fourth panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Mr. Lucio Pitlo III during the third panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Mr. Ruben Reinoso during the second panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

    Presented by Ms. Narzalina Lim during the second panel of APPFI and Asian Center's Symposium titled "In Search of A China Strategy: Unpacking the Bilateral and Regional Dynamics of Philippines-China Relations" held on August 17-18, 2016 at the GT Toyota Center Auditorium, UP Diliman.

  • Photo courtesy of Dr. Francisco Magno taken during the PPSA Distinguished Leadership Lecture, 1 March 2017

    I was fortunate to have done my M.A. and Ph.D. studies in Washington D.C. and my doctoral dissertation research in the United Nations and in Southeast Asia. It was a privilege for me to have witnessed upclose the dynamics of domestic and international politics in my host countries during the escalation of the Vietnam War and the height of the anti-war movement in the 1960s, triggered by the assassination of the leading anti-war advocates, Rev. Martin Luther King and Senator Robert Kennedy.

    My exposure to the realities of international politics deepened my appreciation of ideologies and alternative political and social systems. It strengthened my resolve to devote my career in the service of peace promotion.

    Q & A with Jose Santiago “Chito” Sta. Romana, former journalist, lecturer, and ambassador-designate

    to the People’s Republic of China.

    Photo taken during In Search for a China Strategy, a symposium organized by Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc. and UP Asian Center last August 17-18, 2016.

    [NOTE: The answers to this Q & A draw in large part from a published article by the interviewee, titled “China’s Foreign Policy and the Territorial and Maritime Disputes Between the Philippines and China”, which appeared in A Quest For Regional Solutions: Challenges And Prospects For Conflicts In The South China Sea. Benedikt Seemann and Marie Antoinette De Jesus, Eds. Makati City: Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, 2016, pages 36-49.]  

    IN YOUR VIEW, WHAT IS THE ROOT CAUSE OF THE PROBLEMS BETWEEN CHINA AND THE PHILIPPINES IN THE SOUTH CHINA SEA?

    The root cause of the problems between the Philippines and China has to do with the territorial and maritime disputes between the two countries. There are several dimensions to these disputes: the first is the issue of territorial sovereignty and the competing claims between the two countries over Scarborough Shoal and some maritime features in the Spratlys.

    The second is the issue of maritime rights and jurisdiction:  the status of these contested islets, rocks and shoals, and their respective maritime entitlements, if any, and the competition for economic resources, such as fisheries, oil and natural gas, in the surrounding waters.

    Click here to Watch CNN Philippines' interview with Mr. Chito Sta Romana

    Interviewer: How does this ruling affect relations between China anad the Philippines?

    Chito Sta Romana: It’s a challenge and an opportunity. A challenge because how to convert this legal document – the legal advantage – into reality. How to convince the Chinese to accept this and to abide by this ruling. But the opportunity is that we are facing the Chinese now with a new administration. The new administration has signalled a less adversarial, more concillatory approach to China – so, that may work in the Philippines’ favor. However, expect the Chinese right now to take a hard line. Expect a barrage of media, diplomatic… a lot of hot words in the coming few days as they take a defiant stand. This is a bit reminiscent of what happened in the Tiananmen Square, when the whole world practically was condemning China, and the Chinese took their position. Until eventually, there was an economic boom and the situation turned. So, I think we’l see more of that – the Chinese will pay a price to their image but it will create ripples in Chinese society that could eventually work in our favor.

    South China Sea, Arbitration, The Hague, Duterte Foreign Policy

    ABSCBN's interview with Professors Herman Kraft and Chito Sta Romana, and Atty. Harry Roque after the Hague's release of the arbitration ruling on the South China Sea.

    South China Sea, Arbitration, Philippines-China Relations, The Hague, West Philippine Sea, Scarborough Shoal, Arbitration Award, Duterte Foreign Policy

    Dr. Antoinette R. Raquiza, APPFI vice president and associate professor at the University of the Philippines Asian Center, was interviewed by the Fudan Development Institute during the “Building the Belt and Road: Connection, Innovation and Sustainable Development: Dialogue and Silk Road Think Tank Association Conference,” held from 22 to 24 February 2016, in Shenzhen, China. The interview is featured below with permission from the FDI. 

    Interviewer: Lu Ting (LT)

    Interview, Silk Road, Philippines-China Relations

    On behalf of the Federation of Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry, Inc., I would like to thank PHILEXPORT and APPFI for inviting us to this forum. The Philippines and China share long trade relations. Given our centuries-old ties, we have increased our cooperation and partnership in various fields. However, political relations have been strained recently with the West Philippine Sea issue.

    Chinese Investments in PH, PH-China Economic Relations, FFCCCII

    Allow me also to express PHILEXPORT’s honor and pleasure to welcome you all and to co-organize this timely and important roundtable discussion of Philippine-China trade and investment relations. The Philippine Exporters Confederation, Inc. or PHILEXPORT and APPFI have the common thrust, among others, of promoting development through dialogues and cooperation projects.  Acknowledging China as an important trade and investment partner, we thought that this discussion will be a relevant contribution to easing and/or mitigating possible economic impacts that the current political tension maybe creating on the trade relations of both countries.

    Chinese Investments in PH, PH-China Trade, PHILEXPORT, Tourism, Technology Transfer