The Philippines has been a long time ally of the United States.
The U.S. has maintained military bases, trade agreements, and security operations in the country since WWII. In stark contrast, relations between China and the Philippines have been rocky. Chinese immigrants during Spanish colonialism had trouble assimilating in the Philippines. Investments from Taiwan to the Philippines clashed with One China Policy legitimization. In more recent years, territorial disputes in the South China Sea have contributed tension to the relationship between the two countries. However, since the election of Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines and the U.S. have been distancing themselves from each other.
In response, China seems to be filling the gap.
Duterte has made it clear that he does not trust the U.S. His sentiments can be traced back to his time as mayor of Davao city when an explosion at the Evergreen Hotel involving an American citizen ended with the F.B.I. intervening in the investigation. This interference supports his belief that while the U.S., and other Western powers in general, seek allyship, they are also vying to control the Philippines in a way that is relatable to past colonialism. Duterte sees this as “double talk,” where Western alliances lead to intrusions into Philippine affairs. This provides Duterte with enough reasoning to switch away from a pro-western foreign policy to a less traditional partnering with China.
Disagreements over the Filipino drug issue has been the main instigator in current U.S.-Philippines tension. As promised in his presidential campaign, Duterte has launched a mass war on drugs. He has been accused of accomplishing this by supporting extrajudicial killings of drug suspects. In response to these killings, the Obama administration accused Duterte of human rights violations. in these killings. This critique has strained relations between the two countries. In contrast, the Trump administration has praised Duterte for his progress on the issue. Regardless of this shift in viewpoint, initial American opinions have already affected Duterte's opinions of the Western power.
Ironically, Duterte has stated that he believes most of the drugs plaguing the Philippines originate from Chinese sources. The main organizations thought to be involved are the Hong-Kong based 14K and the Taiwan-based Bamboo triads, organized crime groups using the Philippines as a subordinate “client state” for drug trafficking operations. China has admitted that Chinese nationals are probably involved with the Filipino drug problem. The difference, however, is that China has explicitly and consistently supported Duterte and will cooperate in the drug war. Despite the Chinese connections to the issue, China has proven to be a greater ally than the U.S. in this matter.
This is a stark contrast to recent Chinese pressures concerning the South China Sea.
Territorial rivalries between China and the Philippines over the area came to a head last year when the Hague ruled in favor of upholding the Philippine claim to an Economic Exclusivity Zone in the South China Sea. In lieu of this, Duterte has shown he is more open to negotiating with China on the matter, and China has embraced his approach.
Discussions between the two formerly feuding nations have yielded a “joint energy development” agreement in the once disputed area. Named Service Contract 57, the agreement will allow the China National Offshore Oil Company, the Philippine National Oil Company-Exploration Corporation, and the Malaysian company Mitra Energy Limited to explore the Calamian fields northwest of the Philippine island of Palawan. Both China and the Philippines will collaborate to profit from the fossil fuels and other natural resources available in the area. While this plan hasn’t fully been implemented, the sheer fact that it was proposed and accepted speaks to the greatly improved relations between China and the Duterte administration.
With China and the Philippines working together in the drug war and leaving South China Sea enmities in the past, it is evident that the two countries are entering a drastically different relationship with each other. This new bond has been demonstrated by unprecedented Chinese military aid and general development to the Philippines in the past year.
Through both loans and private investment, the Philippines is receiving large amounts of Chinese financial aid.
Duterte’s campaign focused greatly on infrastructure development and Chinese aid is being used to support this promise. In October 2016, China committed 24 billion USD to the Philippines in aid, with another 3.7 billion USD in January of this year. These funds are being concentrated on transportation infrastructure projects, including a new rail line on the island of Mindanao.
In addition to this, the Philippines is taking advantage of support from the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a largely Chinese-backed multilateral development bank. Loans from the AIIB in 2016 helped fund a 470 million USD flood management project and a 756 million USD bus transit project in the Philippine capital of Manila. While these projects were co-financed by other lenders such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, it is still evident that large amounts of aid came from Chinese sources.
During the Marawi crisis, China delivered military equipment, including rifles and ammunition, to combat Islamic-State affiliated forces in the Philippines. While American troops were on the ground in Marawi, Duterte greatly focused on Chinese contributions. While there is still some doubt around the claim, he stated the rifle used to kill the militant leader Isnilon Hapilon was “a sniper rifle made in China” in an address to Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua. To have major Chinese support in the Philippines is remarkable, but to have it in security operations is even more noteworthy. Relating this to the U.S., this type of aid is even more poignant as Congress delayed Marawi military support due to the drug war controversy.
It should be noted, however, that Chinese aid remains minimal as this friendliness is a new occurrence. Still, the magnitude of assistance already seen, while still small compared to commitments from past allies such as Japan and the U.S., is immensely meaningful.
Trump’s isolationist foreign policy has and will continue to aid China in its abilities to get closer to the Philippines. Currently, the new relationship between the regional counterparts seems mutually beneficial. The Philippines has access to Chinese resources and is mitigating past conflicts with the Asian superpower. China is gaining an ally who is distancing itself from American and other western influences. Whether or not America will more actively intervene in this new development is still unknown, and it is still unclear how long this new Sino-Filipino alliance will last.