What a Duterte government means for Sino-Philippine relations

by Aaron Rabena /June 7, 2016/  Rappler.com

‘The election of a new Philippine president paves the way for the creation of a new foreign policy, a new China policy, and more definitely, a new diplomatic strategy’

With the election of the 16th president of the Philippines and anticipation of the upcoming ruling of Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, Netherlands, on the caseinitiated by the Philippines against China in relation to the maritime disputes in the South China Sea (SCS), there is much talk and expectation on how the new administration might impact the state of bilateral ties or the likelihood a foreign policy shift vis-à-vis China.

It could be remembered that within the last 6 years, Philippines-China relations suffered a major setback owing to the enduring territorial disputes in the SCS given the day-to-day diplomatic finger-pointing and fiery rhetoric being exchanged and issued by both sides. Against this backdrop, the geostrategic and geopolitical significance of the Philippines in Asia cannot be denied as it is a major US defense treaty ally, borders the first island chain, and sits in the front row of growing strategic competition between the United States and China, most especially in light of the former’s grand policy of the Rebalance to Asia.

Foreign policy trajectories

Two things must be kept in mind in politically forecasting or examining the trajectory of Philippines-China relations. First is the issue on how the bilateral relationship would proceed in a Post-Aquino government. Second is on how the relations would be managed in a Post-Arbitration setup. The first one is broader and refers to the overall Philippines-China relations. The second one, being more specific, is mainly about the territorial and maritime disputes in the SCS, but which, in one way or another, could substantially affect the former.

Nevertheless, the election of a new Philippine president paves the way for the creation of a new foreign policy, a new China policy, and more definitely, a new diplomatic strategy. President-elect Duterte is well aware that the relations with China are not in the best of shape and must thus be salvaged so as to optimize greater gains and maximize farther potentials. It could be noted that in 2015, China was the Philippines’ largest source of imports, second largest trade partner and source of tourists, and third largest export market. Taking these into account, the change of leadership and diplomatic awareness could plausibly herald a major détente or rapprochement in Philippines-China relations.

Noticeably, China likewise conveyed that the newly elected president has the type of leadership that they would like to work with in improving bilateral ties. This is in stark contrast to their diplomatic behavior towards the outgoing President, Benigno S. Aquino III, whom a Chinese state-owned media once identified as an “amateurish politician.” In fact, a few days after the meeting between the Chinese envoy to Manila and the incoming president, the former revealed that an initial agreement had been made allowing for Filipino fishermen to fish at Scarborough shoal, which is why they already cease to be challenged by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG).

Thus far, broad policy action plans announced by the incoming Duterte administration have been to make state visits to major powers such as China, Japan, the United States, and neighboring ASEAN states. Closer ties with Russia are also being eyed. With China in particular, a set of policy options are coming to the fore. First, the president-elect expressed openness to accommodating the “Deng Xiaoping model” or functional cooperation through joint oil development and direct bilateral negotiations with regard to the dispute settlement in the SCS. Second, the incoming president showed keen interest to engaging China more by tapping into China’s experience and technical expertise in building railways. Read more…

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