Duterte Pivots To China, But Filipinos Aren’t On Board

Ryan Pickrell | China/Asia Pacific Reporter

The president of the Philippines is currently in China to make friends with old enemies, but the Filipino people aren’t big fans of the nation’s new partners.

Fifty-five percent of Filipinos who participated in a recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey revealed they have a “bad” net trust rating of -33 towards China, BusinessWorld revealed Tuesday. The current net trust rating is nine points lower than the “poor” -24 trust rating just before Duterte took office.

An incredible 83 percent of Filipinos trust Duterte, and 84 percent are supportive of the president’s brutal scorched earth drug war, which has ended the lives of about 3,000 people. While Filipinos approve of most of Duterte’s policies, he still hasn’t sold them on China.

Business are optimistic, with about 250 business leaders accompanying Duterte to China, but other Filipinos are hesitant.

Territorial disputes in the South China Sea, particularly the ongoing dispute over the Scarborough Shoal (Huangyan/Panatag Shoal), have soured relations between China and the Philippines for years. China seized this territory from the Philippines in 2012. The following year, the Philippines unilaterally submitted the dispute to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, infuriating China.

On July 12, the arbitration tribunal discredited China’s claims to the South China Sea in a landmark ruling constituting a major victory for the Philippines. The ruling caused outrage in China, which rejected the ruling, as well as the authority of the tribunal.

Since Duterte took office, he has been downplaying the significance of the ruling, pulling away from the U.S., and warming up to China.

“If we can have the things you have given to other countries by way of assistance, we’d also like to be a part of it and to be a part of the greater plans of China about the whole of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia,” Duterte told the Xinhua News Agency. Some experts argue that China’s plans for Asia include the establishment of a Sino-centric regional order.

“I have a suspicion they truly want to help,” the president said in an earlier speech, “I have a good feeling that we will be OK with them.”

“Let’s not dwell on the Scarborough Shoal. We don’t have the capabilities. Even if we express anger, it will just amount to nothing,” he added. Duterte plans to request access to traditional fishing grounds near the disputed shoal, but it is unclear whether he will raise the issue of ownership. He has made several conflicting statements on this particular issue.

Duterte has already cancelled joint patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea and put a hold on war games to avoid angering the Chinese. The kneeling of a key U.S. ally before the Chinese could have serious implications for the American-led East Asian security structure.

“This reflects the wish of the Philippine people, and is in line with the Philippines’ national interest. No foreign force can stand in the way of such process,” Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Tuesday, indicating that there is nothing the U.S. can do to stop its ally from turning to China.

Despite the foreign minister’s comments, evidence suggests that this is not the will of the people, and whether it is in the interests of the Philippines has yet to be decided.

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