The Philippines: Made in China?

Could Duterte’s pursuit of closer relations with China cost him his political popularity in the Philippines?

China''s President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte
China's President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte toast during a State Banquet at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila on November 20 [Mark Cristino/Reuters]

Hanging from the footbridge of the fourteen-lane Quezon Avenue in Metro Manila on a July morning was a red banner bearing bold letters.

“Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China.”

The inspiration for this prank was a statement by no other than President Rodrigo Duterte himself. In a speech attended by the Chinese ambassador last February, Duterte joked about the Philippines becoming a province of China.

The banners were strategically placed in major thoroughfares at a sensitive time. July 12 was the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in favour of the Philippines over the West Philippines Sea (South China Sea) dispute with China.

Local officials were quick to take the banners down. Government spokesperson Harry Roque declared that it was “enemies of the government” who set up the prank.

Then this week, when Chinese President Xi Jinping paid an official to the Philippines, a wave of anti-China protests swept the country. Demonstrators marched to the Chinese consulate chanting slogans calling on China to “get out of our land”. A fishermen’s movement protested against Beijing’s takeover of the country’s territorial waters. And social media in the Philippines was inundated with images and memes of Winnie the Pooh – a cartoon which has been censored in China because of comparisons of President Xi to its plump bear character.

These stories of resistance, from the indignant to the playful, may give an impression of a nation averse to dealing with its powerful neighbour. One could not help but wonder whether Duterte was amiss in his calculations to pursue a pragmatic approach to China.

What, if any, are the implications of such miscalculation to Duterte’s popularity?

Historical mistrust

Polling data shows there is growing scepticism among Filipinos towards China and Chinese investment. In a September survey that tested public trust of five countries, only China registered a negative trust rating of -16. The United States was on top at +59, followed by Japan at +28. It is indeed curious that juxtaposed next to two powerful nations – which occupied and colonialised Philippine territory – China was the one to get a negative trust rating.

In the Filipino nationalist imaginary, the Chinese represent the alien and exploitative merchant-capitalists. In the Spanish-American colonial era, Chinese economic power was seen as a problem, such that post-war legislation was made to break Chinese dominance in retail.

These historical legacies continue to affect popular sentiments today, as the Philippines engages with China as a dominant global power. Not even the public declaration of love for Xi Jinping by populist Duterte managed to lessen public mistrust of China.

On the particular issue of the West Philippine Sea, the same survey shows that the majority of Filipinos oppose the government’s inaction on China’s intrusion on Filipino territories and consider it very important that the Philippines regains control of the islands. Some 71 percent of respondents thought that these issues should be carried forward in international organisations for diplomatic negotiations.

These polls indicate the apparent disparity between what the people think and what President Duterte does.

National priorities

But this is not the full story. For many Filipinos, territorial integrity matters, but it is not of utmost priority.  Other polling data suggests that the biggest concerns for the general population are salaries, inflation, poverty and employment. Territorial defence is at the bottom, alongside population growth, terrorism, and charter change.  

Mr Duterte’s foreign policy may be out of step with the views of his people, but his pragmatic deals have the potential to respond to the people’s everyday worries. He is putting his bets on Chinese investment boosting the domestic economy.

Compared with his predecessor Benigno S Aquino III, who pursued a proactive foreign policy that promoted the country’s maritime interests in the South China Sea, Duterte has preferred to engage Beijing in bilateral negotiations. At stake are Chinese investments necessary to realise his administration’s agenda of sparking economic growth through the execution of major infrastructure projects. 

Among the 29 agreements signed during Xi’s state visit this week are agreements on feasibility studies of a bridge and an expressway, a loan agreement on a dam project, and, most controversially, a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas development in the West Philippine Sea.

Are these deals worth it? There are some reasons to be sceptical.

It has been two years since Duterte’s trip to Beijing where he declared the Philippines’ “separation from the United States” and it seems that China has fallen short of delivering on its $24bn pledge. 

Economists have found that investments and trade are “not dramatically higher”, except in three economic sectors: tourism, gambling, and real estate. Some big-ticket infrastructure projects went to Chinese contractors with a shady track record, with at least one of them blacklisted by the World Bank.

There is a Tagalog expression that comes to mind when these stories come up – “lutong Macau” or a rigged deal. Duterte risks falling for a “lutong Macau” if he does not ensure proper transparency and high standards of execution for Chinese projects in his country.

As he reaches the middle of his term, it remains to be seen as to how much of the Philippines will be “made in China”. Ahead of the next presidential elections, hard questions will be asked: To what extent has China been allowed to set the terms of contracts, loans, and supply chains for the sake of rapprochement? Have any of these deals turned toxic?

It increasingly seems like Duterte’s political future is tied to his China gambit. If he makes concessions on the territorial dispute and fails to deliver on the economic front, his continued popularity might be in doubt. 

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