The revitalized relations between the Philippines and China can be attributed to President Rodrigo Duterte’s foreign policy shift. The warm bilateral ties is a sharp contrast to the frozen relations during the previous administration of Benigno Aquino III. Duterte opted for a more accommodating approach towards China that led to a dramatic turn in the bilateral ties--- from a confrontational stance to a more amiable outlook.
Proof of these renewed relations were the exchange of state visits by the two countries’ leaders. Duterte visited China early into his presidency in October 2016, while President Xi Jinping visited the Philippines in November 2018. Xi’s latest trip was the first state visit by a Chinese president to the country in 13 years, solidifying both countries’ restored trust and confidence.
At the tail end of 2018, two developments rocked the alliance between the Philippines and the United States. Delfin Lorenzana, the Philippines’ secretary of national defense, called for the review of the Mutual Defense Treaty. In the United States, Secretary James Mattis resigned out of principle, to be temporarily replaced by his relatively inexperienced deputy. With US-China competition moving into high gear, coupled with the unstable domestic politics of the two allied countries, a review of the mutual defense treaty will pose a great challenge to alliance management.
Lorenzana publicly stated the fears and worries held by a large portion of the policymaking sector in the Philippines: that the United States will not defend its ally in the event of an attack in Philippine-claimed areas in the South China Sea, particularly the Kalayaan Island Group. Despite being a former colony, commonwealth, and current ally of the United States, the Philippines has not received any concrete assurances from Washington on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, and it does not see the freedom of navigation operations of FONOPS as a serious strategy in deterring Chinese ambitions for regional primacy. Currently, Under the Mutual Defense Treaty, the allies will act to meet the common danger if either party suffers an armed attack on a) its metropolitan territory, b) the island territories under its jurisdiction in the Pacific area, and c) its armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific area. However, it is not clear if the South China Sea is included in the ‘Pacific area’ under the Treaty, or if the disputed islands in the South China Sea are considered island territories of the Philippines. To be fair to US policymakers, this ambiguity allows them to stay clear of any potential adventurism on the part of allies, hence avoiding entanglement in disputes or even war where its interests are seen to be limited.
Last December, 164 countries approved a landmark accord in Marrakesh, Morocco that may lay the roadmap for governing migration. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (GCM) is an intergovernmental agreement that tries to encompass all aspects of migration. The first of its kind, this instrument promises to improve the plight of migrants, but its non-binding nature and non-adherence of key migrant recipient states like the United States and Australia could wither initial gains. For migrant labor-sending countries like the Philippines, the pact was seen as a big boon.
President Duterte during the ceremonial transfer of Certificate of Authority from US Deputy Chief of Mission John Law to Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Source: US-PH Society
The much-awaited homecoming of the three Balangiga church bells signify United States’ resolve to reset relations with its former colony and longtime ally. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s tirades against the West and efforts to diminish the country’s over reliance on America by expanding ties with other major powers, including U.S. rivals China and Russia, unsettled bilateral relations since 2016. The U.S. obviously wants to check Philippines’ increasing tilt towards Beijing and the bells’ repatriation, albeit symbolic and long overdue, is a clear and solid step towards this. Nonetheless, while such a hallmark move is welcome, it may have marginal effect in countering the core of burgeoning Philippines-China ties which remain firmly grounded on economic convergence. Instead, the bells’ return will have greater utility as a platform to restore high-level political ties and cement U.S. position as Manila’s pre-eminent security partner, a position being challenged by Beijing’s foray into security goods provision.