Prior to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s latest Beijing visit, he promised to raise concerns over the South China Sea dispute with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). It turned out to be an empty promise of diplomatic bravado to simply ease public tensions, but failed.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling clarified that China had no historical claims over the South China Sea, which was largely seen in the Philippines as a victory.

However, Duterte’s Beijing visit resulted in new economic agreements with China while folding on the territorial claims. Duterte later said that Xi would not recognize the ruling, explaining that timing is an important part of diplomacy and that Xi was “under stress by the incidents in Hong Kong.

Six deals were signed between China and the Philippines covering areas of education, finance, customs, and technology. One of the key deals was for joint exploration of natural resources, particularly oil and gas reserves in the contested waters. A committee was formed to undertake this operation that would abide by the laws of both countries with a 60-40 resource sharing arrangement expedient to the Philippines.


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

A protester lights candles to form the word "Traydor" (Traitor) during a rally on July 29, 2019 in suburban Quezon city northeast of Manila, Philippines.

During his visit, Duterte also called on Chinese businesses to increase foreign direct investments in the Philippines. In 2018, China achieved the status of being the Philippine’s top economic partner, accounting for 16.6 percent of or US$14 billion of the total trade, according to the Philippine Statistics Authority.

Militant groups lambasted Duterte’s decision to clinch Chinese investments at the expense of sovereignty.

In response to the results of Duterte’s special visit, Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (BAYAN), also known as New Patriotic Alliance, staged a protest in front of the Chinese consulate. Protesters condemned Duterte for going the opposite direction of what people wanted, signaling greater subservience to yet another global superpower.

Bobby Tuazon, an international relations professor at the University of the Philippines-Manila, said that Duterte seems determined to show a pragmatic approach with China can reap benefits even if Xi had deliberately disregarded the arbitration court ruling.

“You cannot expect China to agree on an arbitration ruling if they don't recognize the case brought to them in the first place. Xi knows this,” said Tuazon. “The meeting with Duterte was mainly for economic partnerships, albeit in the Philippine media the assertion over territory took center stage."

Tuazon also raised concerns regarding China’s diplomatic model on economic partnerships as rewards and as something that takes primacy over any security or territorial matter. He said the Philippines is of particular importance to Chinese economic interests in Southeast Asia and that “Beijing wants to cite its strategic partnerships with the Philippines as a template for dealing with other ASEAN countries.”


King Rodriguez of Philippine Presidential Department

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands during their meeting in Beijing on October 20, 2016.

Is It Worth Trading the Philippine's Territorial Claims for China's "Economic Benefits"?

Independent think tank Ibon Foundation called the terms of the economic boost from China as dubious and onerous.

“Deals with China entail only using their goods and services, including payment of contractors and even hiring Chinese workers, stringent loan payment schedules, disputes having to be settled in Chinese courts,” explained Sonny Africa, executive director of Ibon Foundation. He warned that waving sovereign rights over patrimonial assets is equivalent to the “collateralization of the country’s natural and strategic resources.”

No matter how good the deal is, the Philippines is still getting the short end of the straw.

Before Duterte’s trip, the owner of the Chinese ship that crashed into the Filipino fishing vessel in June issued an apology, presumably to allay diplomatic tensions. The apology only mentioned the actual collision but not the abandonment of 22 Filipino fishermen left to fend for themselves in the waters, also leaving out the detail about intruding into Manila's Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ).


Photo Credit: AP / TPG Images

In this undated June 2019 handout photo provided Arlinda dela Torre via the Department of Agriculture, the damaged Filipino fishing boat F/B Gimver 1 lies on the shores at San Jose, Occidental Mindoro province, Philippines.

Reyes added that the apology was not enough and called it “problematic.” Instead of being a starting point for talking about the ruling during the trip, the omission of the area as part of the EEZ further demonstrated China’s stubborn position.

The militant then slammed China’s US$220 million dollar loan deal for a railway in the Philippines, stating that “Duterte put himself in a difficult position of pleading for territorial claims yet burying the country in debt to China.”

“All the more we must, as a people, raise our strongest objection to China's incursions and its flagrant disregard of intentional law. All the more we should be wary of any joint oil exploration deal that can undermine our legal victory. All the more we should be wary of falling into a debt trap with China as it is their means to dictate on us,” Reyes said.

READ NEXT: 55 Philippine Indigenous Schools Suspended for Alleged Rebel Activities

TNL Editor: Daphne K. Lee (@thenewslensintl)

If you enjoyed this article and want to receive more story updates in your news feed, please be sure to like our Facebook page below.