[FNPFP ORIGINAL] The First 100 Days: Decoding Manila’s Foreign Policy Towards China

Mico Galang
Thursday, December 1, 2016

7 October 2016 marked President Rodrigo Duterte’s first 100 days in office. In his brief stint, Duterte has undoubtedly stirred controversy over the country’s foreign relations because of his tirades and use of expletives. With his cabinet members clarifying the President’s pronouncements, the government has to flip-flop on certain issues, such as threatening to withdraw membership from the United Nations.

Nevertheless, Duterte appears to have a coherent foreign policy in one key issue: Philippine-China relations. Although wide-ranging, ties between the two countries have been consumed by the South China Sea (SCS) issue. Days after Duterte’s inauguration, a decision in the Philippines v China case went largely in Manila’s favor. But in stark departure from his predecessor’s approach, the new government’s policy towards Beijing has been largely clear: to repair—and eventually promote a stable—relationship with China through strategic engagement. Thus far, it appears that this policy has three key components.

First, the government has toned down its rhetoric vis-à-vis China, especially with respect to the outcome of the arbitration. Early in his presidency, Duterte announced that he will neither “taunt [n]or flaunt” a favorable verdict. Thus, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay merely said that Manila “welcomes” the tribunal’s decision and called for “restraint and sobriety.” Although Duterte said he “respect[s] the outcome” of the case, his government has not directly called on China to comply with the ruling—an apparent acknowledgement of the ruling’s unenforceability. This calibrated response has been evident in the Philippines’ foreign engagements, such as the ASEAN Ministerial Meeting where Manila approved a Joint Communiqué that did not make direct reference to the tribunal’s ruling.

Significantly, the President has called on the Chinese to “treat [Filipinos] [as] your brothers and not enemies”—a clear break from his predecessor’s strong statement of comparing China to Nazi Germany. Clearly, this is largely an attempt to prevent a possible backlash from China after the issuance of the ruling, which has diplomatically embarrassed Beijing.

Second, Malacañang has pushed for bilateral talks with China. The Duterte administration has placed emphasis on the utility of this modality in the management of disputes. Perhaps to signify his intention to bilaterally engage China, Durtete appointed former President Fidel Ramos as his special envoy to Beijing. Describing his role as “ice-breaker,” Ramos visited China in August 2016 and expressed to Chinese officials the Philippine government’s intention to hold formal bilateral talks with Beijing.

Third, the Duterte administration has emphasized the need to cooperate with China on other issues. Even before assuming office, Duterte has been open to enhancing trade and investment ties with Beijing. At one point, the President even suggested that if China assists the Philippines in the latter’s infrastructure initiatives he would “shut up” about the SCS dispute.

On its part, China has welcomed the foreign policy overtures of the new Philippine government. In September, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin described Sino-Philippine ties to have reached a “new turning point.” Indeed, China recently lifted the import ban on bananas, one of the key Philippine products. The ban was placed at the height of the 2012 Scarborough incident, reportedly because of phytosanitary concerns. Moreover, China is also assisting the Philippines in its anti-illegal drugs campaign through the construction of rehabilitation facilities for drug users.

With a 91% trust rating at the beginning of his term, Duterte has invested huge political capital to improve ties with Beijing. Against the backdrop of the SCS dispute, many Filipinos have, according to a poll, “little trust” in China. In this context, a possible spoiler to Duterte’s China initiative is the occurrence of a future crisis similar to the 2012 Scarborough Shoal incident, that may inflame nationalist sentiments which, in turn, could mount pressure on Duterte—especially if his trust ratings slip—to take a harder stance. Thus far, it appears that there is little chance of this happening in the near future, with Duterte expressing his commitment to forge robust ties with Beijing. Nevertheless, the government must work closely with the media during such incidents in order to manage the flow of information—thus, preventing a sudden outburst of nationalist emotions that may constrain the conduct of negotiations. This is to prevent tactical situations from conflagrating into a major foreign policy crisis. More importantly, Manila must work closely with Beijing in developing mechanisms to prevent—or, if it happens, manage—such crises. Among others, such mechanisms may include communication hotlines and agreed rules of engagement.

For now, all eyes are on President Duterte’s upcoming October visit to China. Whatever its outcomes may be, Duterte’s visit, his first presidential foreign trip outside Southeast Asia, will be remembered as his administration’s major diplomatic attempt to repair relations with China. Time will tell if this trip will truly mark the beginning of a stable Sino-Philippine relationship.

Mico A. Galang is a graduate student at the University of the Philippines-Diliman (UPD), where he is pursuing a Master in International Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the official position of any organization he is affiliated with.