One week after Chinese President Xi Jinping’s historic visit to the Philippines, domestic opposition to President Rodrigo Duterte’s engagement policy toward Beijing is on the boil again in Manila.

The nationalistic criticism has flared up periodically during Duterte’s two years in office and underscores the structural challenges ahead for Philippine-China relations, despite the ambitious cooperative pronouncements and personal diplomatic rapport built between Xi and Duterte.

The two leaders agreed to 29 bilateral deals during Xi’s two-day visit, including a memorandum of understanding (MoU) that could eventually pave the way for joint oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the South China Sea.

The two sides have competing claims to the waterway, a longtime sore point in bilateral relations Duterte has bid to redress through more cooperation and less confrontation in the maritime area. Critics claim his government has yielded sovereign interests for shortsighted agreements and deals.

The 29 new agreements, many of them vague or otherwise opaque, have thus emerged as a new political lightning rod, with the country’s chief magistrate, vice-president and opposition senators all calling for greater caution, probity and assertiveness in Duterte’s dealings with Beijing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Photo: AFP/Mark Cristino

Xi and Duterte signed a broad MoU that laid out vague terms to facilitate future joint oil and gas exploration and exploitation in the South China Sea under rules applicable with international law.

The provisional agreement, featured in many media reports, provides no specifics on which areas are under consideration for collaborative exploration. Reports have suggested that the two sides are looking at service contract arrangements in the Calamian Islands off the Philippine island of Palawan, as well as the contested Reed Bank.

According to the MoU, all negotiations “will be without prejudice to the respective legal positions of both governments” and won’t “create rights or obligations under international or domestic law.” Thus, at best, the MoU is merely an exploration of a possible exploration deal.

The vague agreement is nonetheless making waves, most notably with the country’s top magistrate.

Last Saturday, in a high-profile speech at the prestigious University of the Philippines’ College of Law, Chief Justice Antonio Carpio described China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea as the Philippines’ “gravest external threat since World War II.”

He warned the government against agreeing to any “joint exploration, development and exploitation” with China in disputed waters since “the constitution says the state shall have full control and supervision in the exploration and development of our natural resources.”

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“If it’s joint, then we are no longer in full control.… So we should avoid joint exploration and development,” the chief magistrate said while warning, “once we cede our sovereign rights in a document, we cede it forever.”

Instead, Carpio urged Duterte’s government “to prepare for the day that the Politburo of China will instruct” its “powerful navy” to “enforce the ‘nine-dash line’ as a national boundary of China” at the expense of smaller claimants such as the Philippines.

Amid the furor, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi has bid to reassure the public that the exploration MoU will not undermine any of the Philippines’ sovereign claims vis-à-vis China in the maritime area.

“The MoU signed with China provides a framework for any possible future cooperation, which may or may not include joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea,” he said, referring to the Philippine characterization of the South China Sea

“I must emphasize that whatever the outcome of this MoU, the rights of existing service contract holders will be protected,” Cusi added.

Philippine activists hold a protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Makati, the financial district of Manila, condemning what they say is China's intrusions into the Scarborough Shoal, known to the Chinese as Huangyan, in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Noel Celis
Philippine activists hold a protest in front of the Chinese Consular Office in Makati, the financial district of Manila, in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Other officials have pushed for greater transparency in the other 28 bilateral deals signed during Xi’s visit. In a statement, Vice-President Leni Robredo lamented that there “were a lot of deals signed when Xi Jinping arrived and we were demanding for transparency [without avail].”

“We should all be able to understand what these deals are. What does that mean for an ordinary Filipino? What benefits do we get? And what are we obligated to do?” the Philippines’ second most powerful official and de facto opposition leader said.

Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said at the time the deals were signed that, “We assure everyone that the government would release all pertinent information for public consumption once President Xi’s visit has culminated, and as soon as the complete, proper and correct documents become certified and available.”

Yet other China deals entered with Duterte’s government are also being called into question, including a telecom license recently handed to a local-foreign consortium led by Beijing’s state-owned China Telecom.

Senator Grace Poe, chairwoman of the Committee on Public Services, is leading a committee hearing this week to investigate the national security implications of China Telecom’s expected entry to the Philippines’ telecommunications market next year.

“We will also ask our national-security experts and telco technology specialists to shed light on national security concerns given that a foreign entity is a partner of the selected third telco,” Poe said in a statement.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte gesturing while he talks on the phone in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP via Presidential Palace/ Richard Madelo
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte talks on the phone in a 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP via Presidential Palace/ Richard Madelo

The Senate is also set to probe a recent influx of illegal Chinese workers into the country, mostly employed in the online gaming business. The influx of undocumented foreign workers has come to the chagrin of the local population, which suffers from high underemployment.

Senator Joel Villanueva, chairman of the Committee on Labor and a Duterte administration ally, has openly lambasted the in-surge of Chinese workers, which he said “shamelessly robbed” locals of much-needed jobs, and called for stronger legislation and law enforcement.

Philippine police earlier arrested 87 Chinese and 16 Filipinos suspected of running illegal online gambling platforms. The online industry has boomed alongside the recent fast development of bricks-and-mortar casinos, mainly in Manila.

The anti-China furor has also been fueled by a viral video. The day after Xi departed Manila, GMA Network, a local major media group, posted a video showing Chinese Coast Guard forces threatening its reporters in waters around the Philippine-claimed and China-occupied Scarborough Shoal.

In the footage, a Chinese naval officer warns the media crew that “without the permission of China, you cannot carry out the interview here,” and that “If you don’t leave here, we will make [it] a forced matter.”

The incident underscored China’s tightening control over the shoal and its surrounding waters, which falls within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro
Filipino fishermen pass by a large Chinese vessel at the disputed Scarborough Shoal. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

It also acted to revive public memories of footage from earlier this year that showed the Chinese Coast Guard harassing and forcibly confiscating the catch of Filipino fishermen in exchange for less valuable cigarettes and expired noodles in the sea area.

Senator Joseph Victor Ejercito, seen as friendly with the Duterte administration, lashed out at China’s perceived bullying of Filipino media members in national waters. “I am not smiling with this latest development.”

Even Senator Aquilino Pimentel III, the head of Duterte’s ruling PDP-Laban Party, called on the government’s Foreign Affairs Department to raise the issue with China.

Opposition Senator Francis Pangilinan, meanwhile, criticized the government for being “meek as a lamb in the face of these assaults on our sovereignty,” while Senator Antonio Trillanes described the incidents as “clearly acts of aggression.”

Rather than reconciling the Filipino political elite and general public, Xi’s visit has reignited resentments and accentuated internal divisions over how to approach and handle the country’s complicated relations with China.