NEW DELHI: Derided as a ‘Chinese lackey’ and worse on social media for his silence on China’s aggression, Philippines President Roberto Duterte has done a complete U-turn on his predecessor’s policies regarding Beijing since he came to power.
Under former president Benigno Simeon Aquino III, Manila had taken Beijing to an international tribunal called the Permanent Court of Arbitration regarding disputes over Scarborough Shoal and the Spratly Islands.
Both these islands are said to have untapped oil and natural gas resources and are of great strategic value to the Philippines and the US. Fears of a Chinese naval and weapons buildup here and on artificial islands being created in the neighbouring areas, are of great concern to the Philippines.
If this is all happening, then why is Duterte, otherwise known as the strongman for his outrageous comments, been silent. Experts say that it is a question of money and the fact that Beijing has invested a lot in him.
“China did not want the earlier regime to continue especially because of the ongoing judgment at the international tribunal. They pumped in a lot of money for Duterte in the 2016 election to ensure a more compliant government in the Philippines,” said Anil Wadhwa, former diplomat with considerable experience in Southeast Asia.
Analysts point out that Duterte has been more pro-China than any previous Philippine president. Apart from not following up on the tribunal ruling which came out on July 12, 2016 – he became president in June – Duterte has done a number of things to assure Beijing’s mandarins he is their man. Perhaps his lowest point was when he called former US President Barack Obama the “son of a whore”. In February this year, he said US troops based in his country should leave, a decision he later rescinded.
US troops are stationed in the Philippines under a bilateral agreement. The US presence is seen as necessary for the country’s security and to counterbalance China in the South China Sea. Their departure would be a huge victory for Beijing.
But the tide has been turning. Growing public criticism for his failure to stand up for the rights of Filipino fishermen bullied by China, and being pulled up by the UN for human rights violations, has made the situation messy for Duterte at home.
“The fact that Filipino fishermen are regularly being beaten up, their boats sunk and fishing rights gradually taken away is something he cannot ignore. China’s aggressive buildup in the South China Sea has also unnerved him so he has asked the US troops to stay on. He now has to walk a finer line between Beijing and Washington,” said Wadhwa
There is also disappointment in Beijing not following through on promises of investment. Unlike many other ASEAN nations, the Philippines is hugely dependent on foreign investment and one of Duterte’s key campaign promises was that he would attract huge investments from Beijing. That hasn’t happened. He visited China last year in this regard but came back with little to show for it.
Trade and aid for the Philippines has largely been fuelled by the US and Japan. According to an official release by the US embassy in the Philippines, the US government “approved an additional $5.3 million in health and humanitarian assistance to help support the Philippines in the fight against COVID-19, bringing total U.S. assistance to the Philippines to more than $9.3 million.”
Such aid could help Duterte recalibrate his position, but it is clear the economic stranglehold that Beijing has over Manila will not go away anytime soon. Economists here refer to the ‘banana war’ where Beijing – one of the top importers of bananas from the Philippines – regularly places restrictions or refuses to import them. This is a disaster for Manila with the economy heavily dependent on exports to China. Such leverage will ensure Duterte, even if he may want to, will never truly be able to keep Beijing at a distance.