Earlier this year, I outlined the roots of the ongoing dispute over the South China Sea and the upending of traditional Philippine foreign policy by incumbent President Rodrigo Duterte, wherein he spurned the country’s long-time pro-American stance in favour of improving relations with Beijing. However, despite the apparent warming of relations with China, it would appear that circumstances have prevented Duterte from completely entrenching himself within Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Cozying up to China
In spite of the tensions surrounding the disputed South China Sea (or as it was re-named by Duterte’s predecessor, the West Philippine Sea), 2018 saw the presidents of the two countries agree to a preliminary deal that would seek possibilities for joint resource exploration in the region. Moreover, China remains the Philippines’ primary trading partner and has become a significant sponsor of a number of Duterte’s economic policies, such as committing to finance and construct several of his infrastructure projects. From the outset of his presidency, Duterte couched himself with Beijing without much hesitation on the back of a strong anti-West and anti-imperial rhetoric.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping from King Rodriguez, the Philippine Presidential Department, 2016.
However, Duterte’s embrace of China is not shared by his constituents. The president maintains strong approval ratings from the Philippine citizenry, but the people remain at odds with their leader regarding the South China Sea. Considering the 2016 Hague Tribunal that invalidated China’s claim to the disputed waters, Filipinos have been resentful of Beijing’s expansionism. In a recent poll, 87% of Filipinos expressed dissatisfaction with Duterte and supported more assertive action that would affirm the Philippines’ sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Moreover, despite China’s verbal commitments to funding and investing in government projects and the Philippine economy, little of these funds have materialized. In light of this context, Duterte publicly stated that he would mention the tribunal’s ruling during his August 2019 visit to China. However, skepticism over this claim lingered, and ultimately Duterte’s bravado failed to manifest any improvements in the Philippine’s sovereign claims to the disputed waters. Upon his return from China, Duterte announced that his administration would be “ignoring” the Hague Tribunal’s ruling after Chinese President Xi Jinping would not “budge” on the matter. Instead, the two presidents compromised on an agreement that would allow Chinese exploration in the disputed waters in exchange for the Philippines receiving 60% of its revenues. This 60-40 proportional split between the Philippines and China, respectively, meets the standards of the Philippine constitution, which is “clear about its duty to protect its EEZ ‘exclusively‘ for Filipinos.” While this prima facie appears to satisfy the base level of recognition of Philippine sovereign rights by meeting the constitution’s requirements, the deal still retains the feel of Beijing superiority.
Continuing his turn away from the Philippines’ traditional Western-alignment, Duterte embarked on a 5-day visit to Russia and met with Vladimir Putin earlier this month. In pursuing improved Philippine-Russian relations, which past administrations have ignored to avoid upsetting Washington, Duterte has reversed a position that his country has maintained since the Cold War. The outspoken leader minced no words when rebuffing the country’s former stance, stating that the Philippines’ pro-American foreign policy that relegated Russia to “the margins” of the country’s foreign relations was “an oversight of strategic proportion.” Perhaps in response to the population’s disapproval of his concessions to Beijing, Duterte discussed and agreed to future joint resource exploration in the disputed waters during a meeting with Igor Sechin, CEO of the Russian company Rosneft, which has connections to the Russian government. Vietnam has already begun collaboration with the Russian firm in an attempt to assert their claim to their area of the disputed Sea. Beijing has responded by cautioning against these new partnerships as they themselves attempt to monopolize the waters. For the Philippines, Russia has no claims in the dispute and the contracts recognize the areas as Philippine territory, enabling the country to maintain its sovereignty while enabling the possible exploitation of the waters’ resources. The Philippines, for its part, has already begun to allow foreign firms into the region: permitting the Israeli company Ratio Petroleum Ltd to begin resource exploration in October 2018. Officially, such foreign companies act “as mere service contractors,” enabling the Duterte administration to convey sentiments that they retain control over the situation and new partnerships. It must be noted, however, that Philippine-Russian relations have expanded beyond resource exploration. The two countries have begun collaborations in defence and security, including a number of major arms deals, as well as increased bilateral trades and investments.