Philippines-China — after the rainbow, more rain


Despite Xi’s visit and repeated Chinese aid pledges, ties remain uncertain amid a domestic backlash

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s recent trip to the Philippines should have left his hosts basking in the glow of reflected glory, the warmth of friendship and the satisfaction of opening up some big economic presents.

But the Chinese leader’s Nov. 20-21 visit produced no such sentiments. Despite the heady announcement of turning bilateral ties into “strategic partnership,” there was no progress on the key difficulties dividing Manila and Beijing, headed by the maritime disputes and a growing backlog in China’s ambitious economic support pledges.

Instead of applause for Xi, there is a backlash against the relationship, with prominent statesmen warning against any large-scale entry of Chinese workers and investments as well as opposing any major compromise in the South China Sea.

Two prominent senators, Antonio Trillanes IV and Francis Pangilinan, warned the government against signing “any agreement with China or any other state which diminishes the Philippines’ exclusive [maritime] rights.”

Antonio Carpio, a senior judge who was recently acting chief justice, lashed out at China’s creeping maritime presence in Philippine waters as the “gravest external threat since World War II.” And Vice President Leni Robredo, an opposition politician, demanded “transparency” in bilateral deals and raised doubts over their merits, saying: “What benefits do we get? And what are we obligated to do [in return]?”

The criticisms raise questions about the China-Philippines relations and Beijing’s broader efforts to expand its influence in Southeast Asia. If a visit by China’s leader, the first in 13 years, produces such a reaction, what are the prospects for Chinese leadership in the region?

It is all a far cry from the mood President Rodrigo Duterte tried to create before Xi’s arrival. The Philippine leader had spent two years trying to reorient his country toward Beijing and away from its traditional allies in Washington, revitalizing bilateral economic ties and downplaying awkward maritime disputes. Shortly ahead of his visit, Xi even penned an op-ed for Xinhua, where he declared relations with Manila had “now seen a rainbow after the rain.”

There were even hopes that Xi’s visit would bring a joint exploration agreement in the disputed zone of the South China Sea, a prelude to resource sharing in other areas of overlapping claims. Yet, the two countries signed only a generic memorandum of understanding (MOU) on oil and gas cooperation, which, according to Philippine Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi, was “just a cooperation [deal] to explore solutions” on “how we can enjoy the resources” in the South China Sea.