New dawn for Philippine-China relations?

When it comes to China, what matters is development and bilateral diplomacy rather than confrontation and deterrence.

Filipino President-elect Rodrigo Duterte talking to Chinese envoy Zhang Jianhua during a meeting in Davao City.
Filipino President-elect Rodrigo Duterte (right) talking to Chinese envoy Zhang Jianhua during a meeting in Davao City, southern Philippines on June 2 [EPA]

“I will ask the [Philippine] Navy to bring me to the nearest point in South China Sea that is tolerable to them and I will ride a jet ski‎. I will carry a flag, and when I reach Spratlys, I will erect the Filipino flag,” declared Davao City mayor, Rodrigo Duterte, during the Philippine presidential campaign.

Not short of machismo, he even dared China, which is locked in territorial disputes with the Philippines, to a boxing match or a gun duel (Suntukan o barilan).

The tough-talking provincial mayor, who has leapt from one controversy to the other, was just proclaimed as the Philippines’ 16th president.

Though only gaining the plurality of votes, the newly-elected Filipino president has been behaving like a modern king (Caudillo), giving long-winded and largely incoherent speeches, hosting spontaneous press conferences at midnight, brazenly issuing threats to critics, including the media, and swiftly consolidating support in the Philippine legislature, where he enjoys a “super-majority” support.

His penchant for provocative statements – and reputation for off-the-cuff bravado – has raised concerns that he will be a diplomatic disaster for the Philippines.

Often compared to the United States Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, many have come to question Duterte’s competence to act as a steady commander-in-chief capable of handling delicate foreign relations, especially with great powers such as China and the US.

A more careful examination of Duterte’s background, speeches and his key advisers, however, reveals a more pragmatic and astute leader who is intent on repairing frayed ties with China and decreasing the Philippines’ excessive dependence on the US.

Shifting sands

Over the past few years, the Philippines has emerged as one of the most strident critics of Chinese assertiveness in adjacent waters.

After three decades of relatively stable bilateral relations, President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines made the unprecedented decision to take China to international court over maritime disputes in the South China Sea.

Unlike the outgoing administration, Duterte has openly called for direct talks with Chinese leadership and joint development agreements in the South China Sea.


In addition, the Aquino administration stepped up bilateral security cooperation with traditional allies, such as the US, as well as Asia-Pacific powers, such as Japan and Australia.

Under the Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement, the Philippines granted the US military extended access to its bases in order to deter further Chinese adventurism in Manila-claimed waters.

The Philippines also struck key defence pacts, such as the Status of Forces Agreement with Australia, paving the way for regular bilateral military exercises, and a defence equipment transfer agreement with Japan, paving the way for Tokyo to export advanced weaponry to its Southeast Asian ally.

To be fair, all these (defensive) measures were adopted in response to China’s de facto occupation of the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. The contested land feature falls well within the Philippines’ 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, but lies 900km away from China’s nearest shoreline.

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Rising tensions in the South China Sea led to a virtual collapse in bilateral communication channels as well as a dramatic decrease in Chinese investments in the Philippines.

Today, the Philippines and China have among the most toxic bilateral relationships in Asia.

Chinese President Xi Jinping hasn’t held a single formal summit with his Filipino counterpart, who, in turn, has often adopted pugnacious rhetoric and demurred from deeper economic ties with China.

Calibrated unpredictability

In contrast, Duterte, who is a self-proclaimed “socialist” – with long-established ties with Filipino communists – has adopted a more conciliatory language towards China.

One of the most consistent themes in his speeches is the necessity to find a common understanding in the South China Sea.

For the newly-elected president, when it comes to China, what matters is development and bilateral diplomacy rather than confrontation and deterrence.

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In one of his speeches, he went so far as satiating that if China will “build [the Philippines] a train around Mindanao, build [the Philippines] a train from Manila to Bicol … build [the Philippines] a train [going to] Batangas, for the six years that I’ll be president, I’ll shut up [on the sovereignty disputes].”

Given the depth of anti-China sentiments in the Philippines, Duterte was largely speaking out of geopolitical conviction rather than political calculation.

It is highly likely that his “jet ski” and “planting flag” statements were designed to burnish his patriotic credentials lest he may be accused of being pro-China. Acting tough gives him the necessary diplomatic leverage to strike an eventual modus vivendi with Beijing.

A new era?

Unlike the outgoing administration, Duterte has openly called for direct talks with Chinese leadership and joint development agreements in the South China Sea.

He has even cast doubt on the utility of the Philippines’ arbitration case against China, which has boycotted the whole proceedings.

Interestingly, shortly after the elections, the Chinese ambassador to the Philippines was among the first dignitaries to meet with the presumptive president. Shortly after the meeting, Duterte’s camp announced that China would relax restrictions on Filipino fishermen straddling the Scarborough Shoal area.


Meanwhile, Duterte has openly questioned the reliability of alliance with the US, vowing to pursue a more “independent” foreign policy.

Though it is improbable that Duterte will downgrade ties with the US, he will most likely adopt an equilateral balancing strategy, whereby the Philippines will not side with any superpower against the other – cooperating with each of them depending on the issue at hand.

Nonetheless, much will depend on how China – which has rapidly built a sprawling network of military bases and artificial islands across contested waters – will genuinely reciprocate Duterte’s offer of an olive branch. After all, it takes two to tango.

Richard Javad Heydarian is a specialist in Asian geopolitical/economic affairs and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for Western Pacific.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.