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Why China Would Give More Aid, Investment to Leery Philippines

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) chats with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Jan. 16, 2021. (Image: Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division)
FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (R) chats with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Jan. 16, 2021. (Image: Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division)

The Philippines will get more aid and investment from China, Chinese officials say, as analysts believe assistance given so far has failed to meet Filipinos’ expectations and Beijing doesn’t want the Southeast Asian country to depend too much on the United States, China’s rival.

“China is willing to work with the Philippines to implement more cooperation projects and allow the people in both countries to benefit more from bilateral cooperation,” the Chinese Foreign Affairs Ministry said in an August 27 statement issued after a tele-summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte.

According to the statement, Xi added that his country’s cooperation with the Philippines would “make more contributions to regional peace and prosperity.”

After Duterte and Xi met in Beijing in 2016, auguring a new Sino-Philippine friendship, China pledged $24 billion in aid that was expected to speed infrastructure renewal work in the relatively poor Southeast Asian country. China was already known for building infrastructure across Eurasia as a way to open trade routes.

China has offered several billion dollars’ worth of investment in Philippine railways among other projects, helped the country explore for undersea oil, sent COVID-19 vaccines and donated arms to fight Muslim rebels who periodically attack government positions in the archipelago’s southernmost islands.

Many Filipinos, though, believe this support has fallen short of Beijing’s original pledge, especially against the backdrop of a festering South China Sea maritime sovereignty dispute that exploded in March when 220 Chinese fishing vessels moored at a contested islet, analysts in Manila say.

“It’s kind of like maybe the Chinese side really wanting to make sure that the bilateral relations will remain stable and maintain the current momentum going forward – avoid disruptions,” said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila.

Xi discussed aid with Duterte the tele-summit and pledged on the call to help further with infrastructure projects and COVID-19 relief.

Duterte said in a statement that day he looks forward to China's “continued support for landmark projects,” including flood control work, a railway north of Manila and two key bridges.

Some earlier Chinese-funded projects are still in the pipeline or may be stalled by Philippine bureaucracy, Rabena said.

Aid as pledged in 2016 was seen then as part of China’s bid for friendship with the Philippines, a historic U.S. ally. Duterte pushed back against Washington in the early part of his six-year presidential term as he pursued a multicountry foreign policy but pivoted back this year by lifting an order to cancel the U.S.-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement of 1999.

Duterte's renewed support for that agreement probably worries China, Rabena said.

“You could say that the relationship between the two countries[China and the Philippines] [is] not as quiet and rosy as they were in the past five years,” said Jay Batongbacal, international maritime affairs professor at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City.

U.S. forces regularly train their Philippine counterparts to fight in the South China Sea, if needed, and the Visiting Forces Agreement gives U.S. troops easy access to the Philippines.

Beijing claims about 90% of the 3.5 million-square-kilometer sea, overlapping waters the Philippines and four other governments also claim.

Chinese officials point to documents dating back more than 1,000 years as support for their maritime claim. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam cite a United Nations convention to back their own. Taiwan claims most of the sea as well. Claimant governments prize the sea for fisheries, fossil fuel reserves and marine shipping lanes.

Most Filipinos questioned Duterte's overtures to China that began in 2016, according to a poll two years later by the Quezon City-based research organization Social Weather Stations.

“Assuming Beijing even follows through on any of its supposed aid pledges, the Filipino public and military are strongly pro-American and would most likely resent Xi Jinping trying to buy them off,” said Sean King, vice president of the Park Strategies political consultancy in New York.

Duterte, who must step down in mid-2022 due to term limits, wants China to keep its aid pledges partly to give him the “political capital” to endorse a successor in next year’s election, Rabena said.