Duterte has little to show for his embrace of authoritarian China

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Since taking office, President Duterte has eschewed traditional allies in favour of a pivot towards Beijing. Three years into his term, there are few tangible signs that it was a worthwhile endeavour.

By Zachary Frye

President Rodrigo Duterte was swept into office in 2016, promising a strong, no-holds-barred leadership style. While several domestic ventures, including a punitive war on drugs, lived up to these expectations – or fears – his foreign policy has been more blunted.

At the advent of his term, he promised to pursue an independent foreign policy, even going as far as to suggest he might put an end to the US military presence in the country. However, this failed to materialise. Duterte has been quick to rationalise or downplay Beijing’s aggression, particularly in the South China Sea. Rather than confront Chinese aggression, Duterte has signed unfavourable deals with China at the expense of national sovereignty and the livelihoods of local fisherman.    

To his critics, this is a grave mistake. The 2016 tribunal in The Hague ruled in favour of Filipino interests in the South China Sea, offering the Philippines a legal platform to defend its territorial claims in the region. But Duterte has all but missed the opportunity to make headway on the issue.

During parliamentary midterm elections earlier this year, he vowed to toughen his stance toward Beijing. Now, he says he will continue to ignore The Hague’s ruling in order to advance Chinese oil contracts.

China is becoming a substantial player in the Philippine’s economy       

Duterte’s signature economic policy is a massive infrastructure initiative, colloquially known as ‘Build Build Build.’ Approximately US$152 billion has been set aside for infrastructure developments during Duterte’s first term.

Chinese investments and construction companies are playing a large role in these projects. So far, China has committed to finance 12 out of the 37 approved projects. Shortly after the international arbitration, China pledged US$24 billion in aid and loans to the Philippines, but only US$4.7 billion had materialised as of February.

Regardless, the president has repeatedly commended China and its economic assistance. “I would say, I need China more than anybody else at this time of our [sic] national life. I need China. I will not say something which is not good.”

Duterte is willing to downplay the territorial issues between the two countries for the sake of bilateral partnerships. It’s also apparent that he plans to play up the country’s economic successes for political gain. In a meeting in Beijing earlier this month, Duterte praised China’s role in Build Build Build and vowed to complete all major projects by 2022.

Other countries, however, still play a vital role in the trajectory of the Philippines’ development. While Chinese investments are increasing, China still lags behind traditional allies in foreign direct investment (FDI) and official development assistance.

China remains the Philippines’ number one trading partner. But other countries, like The Netherlands, Singapore and the United States, make up the bulk of FDI, which help expand local businesses.

Beijing offers Duterte a roadmap for autocratic political success

The administration is quick to trumpet China’s successes while glossing over Beijing’s poor human rights record. In many ways, China’s focus on economic progress at the expense of individual rights has been a model for Duterte’s domestic policy. 

Despite China’s massive growth, it continues to repress its citizen’s basic rights and the freedom of the press. Unlike China, Duterte hasn’t engaged in mass repression of minority ethnic groups. He is, however, involved in several rights-based controversies, including extrajudicial killings and the intimidation of journalists. His political allies are also weaponising social media to discredit opponents, a tactic increasingly used by authoritarian regimes, including China.    

In accordance with the 1987 Philippine Constitution, Duterte is only allowed to serve one term as president. Although he won’t be on the ballot in 2022, his political arguments will have a profound effect on the next election. If voters reject his bluster and autocratic tendencies, moderating voices will likely fill the void.   

In the short term, however, there are risks to Duterte’s pro-China foreign policy. His lack of conviction in the South China Sea has irked some Filipinos. Giving off the impression of abandoning national interests is a real concern. An overwhelming majority of Filipinos oppose Duterte’s inaction on the issue. 

“We might wake up one day and [find that] many of our territories are no longer ours,” says Leni Robredo, the Philippines Vice President and main opposition leader.

Ties with Beijing can be strong, but not at the expense of national interests

There is no reason that the Philippines should shy away from a productive relationship with China. Beijing is clearly a hegemonic power in the region that will continue to warrant substantial diplomatic attention.

But resigning Manila’s foreign policy to its status as Beijing’s lapdog isn’t smart in the long term. Undeterred Chinese aggression in the South China Sea sets a bad precedent for relations with a country that has ambiguous global ambitions, notwithstanding the national interests and personal livelihoods at stake for the Philippines itself.

Duterte needs to have the courage to make a stand for the wellbeing of all Filipino citizens – including those near the disputed islands.

Clearly, the Philippines is in difficult diplomatic position. China has much less to lose from an economic deal that falls through.

Instead of engaging in a policy of non-resistance vis-à-vis Chinese aggression, a more principled leader would take advantage of its relationships with liberal democracies to help push for the enforcement of the 2016 ruling.

As far as the politics is concerned, there is evidence that Filipinos will shy away from one-sided partnerships with the Chinese. In a 2019 survey with regional leaders, policymakers and civil society groups, over 66% of Filipino respondents viewed China’s re-emergence as a global power with suspicion – the highest in the region. Yet it was also the country perceived to have the most political and strategic influence over ASEAN as a bloc.

Southeast Asia is caught between the rise of China as a global hegemon and the established Western powers, and the Philippines is no different. China-Philippines relations can be fruitful, but the country needs to navigate the relationship based on its highest values, not just economic expediency.