Richard Heydarian writes that Filipinos are asking: Is China a ‘friend’ of the Philippines or only Duterte?

“Speech is the faculty by which men conceal their thoughts,” the legendary Napoleonic diplomat, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, once observed.

In many ways, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest visit to China, his fourth in less than three years, illustrated Talleyrand’s reflections on talk. His stopover was filled with cordial rhetoric that concealed simmering tensions in the budding alliance.

Though in Beijing to attend the second Belt and Road Forum, the Philippine leader managed to meet both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

The two countries signed more than 19 agreements, including investment deals worth US$12 billion that are expected to generate more than 21,000 jobs.

On the South China Sea disputes, however, both sides effectively agreed to disagree with no clear resolution in sight. Despite widespread domestic criticism, Duterte remains undaunted in his pivot to China.

The visit took place against the backdrop of rising domestic pressure on the Philippine president to take a tougher stance on the maritime spats. Over the past few months, an armada of Chinese vessels has surrounded Philippine-occupied land features in the disputed areas.

Chinese paramilitary vessels were also spotted near the Philippine-occupied Loaita and Lankiam Cay Islands. The two sides have also been at loggerheads over the Sandy Cay, a sandbar perched between the Philippine-occupied Thitu Island and Chinese-occupied Subi Reef.

Much to the chagrin of Filipinos, including prominent celebrities, Chinese fishermen also engaged in the mass harvesting of precious clams from the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal.

The disputed land feature has been under de facto Chinese control following a nerve-racking naval stand-off with the Philippines in 2012.

Thitu Island
Photo: Thitu Island, the largest of Philippine administered Islands in the South China Sea.

Duterte, however, was adamant in pursuing warmer ties with China, his closest strategic partner and “friend”. For him, diplomacy is the only game in town and, accordingly, prioritising robust economic relations with China trumps all other concerns.

Ironically, the tough-talking president has become the unlikely voice for radical pragmatism vis-à-vis the South China Sea disputes.

As Talleyrand advised, diplomacy is a subtle art of navigating redlines and is negotiable. To him, “[a] diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe’, a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no’, and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat”.

For Duterte, a former provincial mayor catapulted to the centre of Indo-Pacific geopolitics, saying “no” to bilateral relations with China is a non-option. In his view, China is on an ineluctable march towards regional leadership.

Thus, countries such as the Philippines should focus on cooperation rather than confrontation, the Philippine president believes.

To Duterte’s delight, China has also emerged as a primary strategic patron in global forums, including the United Nations. This is especially the case when it comes to the global outcry against his controversial drug war, which has claimed the lives of thousands of suspected drug dealers.

The International Criminal Court is currently investigating Philippine officials for potential crimes against humanity. In the coming years, the international body could proceed with the prosecution of senior officials, including Duterte.

Thus, securing China’s support on this issue has been a pillar of Duterte’s personalised foreign policy.

In fact, during his meeting with Xi, the two sides signed counter-narcotics cooperation deals, including China’s funding of multiple drug rehabilitation centres on Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

In addition to multibillion-dollar investment deals, China also offered 1 billion yuan (US$148 million) in official development help to the Philippines. According to Philippine presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo, the two countries focused on “the framework of the ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ and how this will further help in the economic development of the Philippines”.

“President Xi manifested that China will provide more resources to Luzon (the Philippines’ largest island) and Mindanao to spur regional economic growth, as well as promote Clark Green City (a planned community in Capas, Tarlac province) through the building of an industrial estate,” Panelo said.

A suspected drug dealer is handcuffed after police break up a drug dealing operation in Manila last year
Photo: A suspected drug dealer is handcuffed after police break up a drug-dealing operation in Manila.

The Philippines was highly encouraged by Beijing’s promise to fine-tune the belt and road programme in light of growing concerns that it was a “debt trap” for developing countries and failed to include sufficient local content in Chinese projects.

In a departure from his previous speeches, the Chinese leader focused less on his global vision for a Beijing-driven infrastructure landscape in favour of emphasising collaboration, innovation, transparency and mutually beneficial deals.

“Everything should be done in a transparent way, and we should have a zero tolerance for corruption,” Xi said. He promised that Beijing would offer a “debt-sustainability framework” that complied with international standards in infrastructure contracting.

Xi’s assurances came at a crucial juncture as many countries, especially the Philippines, cry foul over the massive influx of Chinese workers and lack of transparency in belt and road projects.

“For Duterte, a former provincial mayor catapulted to the centre of Indo-Pacific geopolitics, saying “no” to bilateral relations with China is a non-option.”

On the South China Sea, however, there seems to be no agreement on how, exactly, to diffuse tensions. The Philippine ambassador to Beijing, Chito Santa Romana, told reporters late last month that Duterte had raised the 2016 arbitration ruling at The Hague, which was rejected by the Chinese leader.

He maintained that both sides agreed not to occupy the Sandy Cay for now, while implying that China may withdraw its armada from the vicinity of Philippines-occupied Thitu Island as: “There is no need for China [to continue its swarming of the island with vessels]. It’s a waste of time to just stay there. And the Chinese took note of this”.

Dozens of Chinese fishing vessels have been spotted near Thitu, which hosts dozens of Filipino soldiers and civilian residents, since the beginning of the year.

Romana emphasised Duterte’s long-held position that there is a “basic consensus” that “although we proceed with some differences, these can be resolved through peaceful, diplomatic means”.

Yet, Duterte’s stubbornly pacifist, if not passive, approach could come at the cost of his political capital and potential long-term backlash at home. A growing number of Filipinos are asking: Is China a “friend” of the Philippines or only Duterte?