Campaigning for the Philippines’ midterm elections in May is in full swing. While the country's relationship with China was already a hot-button issue in the 2016 presidential elections, it promises to become an even bigger issue in this year's polls. The administration’s perceived approval of Chinese encroachment, both politically and economically, has not won over the public.

Erin Tanada, an opposition candidate for senator, says that the midterm election will be a “referendum” on President Rodrigo Duterte's performance. One of the major issues on which Duterte has been most harshly criticized is his handling of Philippines-China relations.


Credit: Reuters / Erik De Castro

Filipinos hold placards protesting reports that China would build an environmental monitoring station in the disputed South China Sea.

Pulse on the Philippines

While Duterte’s approval ratings remain high at 74 percent, his popularity has not carried over to public approval of his dealings with the archipelago's largest neighbor. Many Filipinos distrust his sincerity in safeguarding the country's territories, especially areas of the South China Sea being claimed by China.

Surveys also show that 84 percent of Filipinos feel Duterte is not doing enough to stop China’s “intrusion” in what the Philippine government refers to as the West Philippine Sea. This came after the announcement of a landmark joint exploration deal for oil and gas between the Philippines and China in these waters.

In July 2016, the Philippines received a favorable decision over territorial claims in the waters from the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. The decision invoked much public approval in the Philippines among a populace long angered by Chinese claims in waters controlled by the Philippines.

Filipinos have consistently registered their distrust for China, especially in comparison with other countries. The latest survey shows that 60 percent of Filipinos do not trust the Asian superpower – the highest compared to the US, Japan, Australia, UK, and Russia.

On Sunday, Duterte reiterated his defense of the influx of Chinese workers in the country at a campaign rally for his senatorial candidates, in response to criticism over worsening joblessness and disrespect for immigration laws in the country.

Territorial disputes in debates

In all public senatorial debates, mostly broadcast live on television, the Philippines' territorial dispute with China, as well as various issues concerning the latter, has been an ever-present topic.

Along with Tanada, senatorial aspirants Neri Colmenares, Florin Hilbay and Gary Alejano have been making their misgivings on the issue known since Chinese leader Xi Jinping met with Duterte in November. They stressed that the Philippines is almost surrendering its sovereignty to the regional superpower.

During a Feb. 10 televised debate, Colmenares asserted that “Vietnam and Taiwan have been standing for their sovereign rights against China. We won in the tribunal, but why do we act like we lost?”


Credit: AP / Bullit Marquez

Neri Colmenares, an opposition Senate candidate and Duterte critic.

Alejano, a congressman, floated the idea that Beijing money could enter the country to ensure results favorable to Chinese interests. He said: “We are entering the trap of China. In exchange for what? Loans? Good relationship? We are becoming dependent and controlled.”

Take back the sea

Tanada told The News Lens in an email that he “foresees the Filipino people rebuffing the President's foreign policy by rejecting his allies in the polls because of the government’s whimpish stand against China’s bullying.”

Like Tanada, Colmenares believes this is a swing issue for many Filipinos who are very much pro-independence. “Between two equal candidates, the one that is against China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea will get the vote,” Colmenares told The News Lens.

Back in 2008, Colmenares petitioned the Supreme Court against China’s exploration of the West Philippine Sea. He explained that the area holds “trillions worth in resources. All of which are being put up for sale to coax Chinese investments for infrastructure projects. Ultimately Filipinos will be at the losing end of this deal.”

Chinese enterprises have been granted nearly half of infrastructure projects in the government’s flagship program dubbed “Build, Build, Build.” These businesses have also captured exclusive contracting rights for the 1.5 trillion Philippine peso (US$29 billion) undertaking, according to think-tank Ibon Foundation.

Subjugation or cooperation?

In contrast, Christopher “Bong” Go, a Duterte aide since 1998 who is now running for senator with the support of Malacanang Palace, is a defender of Duterte's general stance on China.

Go, whose posters with the image of the president beside him line the streets in the Philippines, told The News Lens in an email that agreements with the government's new partner should be celebrated, not disavowed.


Credit: AP / Aaron Favila

Christopher 'Bong' Go (right) stands with Rodrigo Duterte.

Go admits that the West Philippine Sea “remains a very contentious issue for the voting public.” He adds, however, that “Filipinos can also see that both countries can and should work together on shared goals by expanding the window of functional cooperation agreeable to both sides, such as mineral exploration.”

He said that “recent successes” in the relationship between the two countries are due to the Philippines finally opening up more channels of communication with China.

The sway of popularity

Professor Bobby Tuazon, director of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance or CenPeg, told The News Lens that no matter what issue-based advantages opposition bets have, their counterparts in the administration ticket are still in a better position.

According to him, many of the administration's candidates “have the advantage of either being incumbent, re-electionists, name recall or resources. These are decisive factors in winning the election.”

Go was quick to note that the claim that “the decision of the Filipinos on their choice of candidates will not be solely anchored” on the issue of Philippines-China relations. Rightly so, but it still presents a huge debacle for the voting population and the future of foreign policy in the Philippines.

Opposition hopefuls critical of Chinese encroachment may have the benefit of winning a popular vote based on patriotism. But their counterparts could still trump them if their own inherent advantages manage to drive attention away from foreign policy issues.

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Editor: Nick Aspinwall (@Nick1Aspinwall)

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