Last December, Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress held the last Track Two Observer Discussion for 2021, with the topic “Philippines-China Relations During the Duterte Administration.” The forum served as a review of the developments, gains, and challenges that happened in the bilateral relations between the two countries following the shift in policy towards China when Duterte assumed office in 2016. With Duterte’s term finally ending, the assessment of the bilateral relations will serve as a basis for valuable recommendations for the next chief executive.
Dr. Stefan Jost, the Country Director of Konrad Adenauer Stiftung Philippines Office, gave the welcome remarks for the event, noting the importance and topicality of the bilateral relations between the Philippines and China, considering the many challenges and possibilities of opportunity for diplomatic breakthrough. He also underscored the importance of track two and think tank networks, that allow for comprehensive and multi-faceted analyses of issues that enrich public discussions and policy recommendations.
His Excellency Jose Santiago Sta. Romana, Philippine Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China, highlighted some key achievements of the Duterte Administration, especially increasing economic and trade linkages. He also noted increased medical cooperation because of the COVID-19 pandemic. However, he also emphasized that difficulties are inevitable, and that our national interests and adherence to international law must always inform Philippine diplomatic strategy, even more so with China.
Ambassador Carlos Chan, a Special Envoy of the President to the people’s Republic of China, focused on the economic and trade aspects of the bilateral relations. He noted that the Duterte Administrations large-scale infrastructure development program helps position the country to be more competitive in the region, and that China has been supportive of these efforts through funding. Trade with China and tourist arrivals from China also boomed during the Duterte Administration. He calls on the next chief executive to learn from these developments from the current administration, as well as encourages businessmen, scholars, and researchers to enhance people-to-people links with Chinese counterparts to enhance understanding and improve relations.
Dr. Rommel Banlaoi, President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies, detailed the steps that the Duterte Administration took to move away from the previous administration’s approach towards China to reestablish friendlier relations. Chinese outreach for better ties included military to military connections, and even party to party relations with the Chinese Communist Party establishing relations with administration-friendly political parties in the Philippines. Increased presence of Chinese nationals in the Philippines brought with it the potential for better people to people ties but was overshadowed by accompanying security and law enforcement difficulties.
Dr. Aaron Jed Rabena, Foundation Coordinator of APPFI, noted in his presentation that while Duterte’s attitude towards bilateral relations with China appeared defeatist and friendly to the point of appeasement, the actions of other parts of the administration and other bureaucratic actors often diverge from Duterte’s rhetoric. Dr. Rabena noted that this confusing mix of appeasement policy rhetoric and a balancing policy engagement has led to an effect of complex hedging that gives the Duterte Administration a measure of strategic ambiguity.
You can read the policy brief from the event by Mr. Lucio Pitlo III here.