Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth visit to China in less than three years took a conciliatory tone, with both sides vowing to prioritize economic cooperation and soft pedal disputes in the South China Sea.

The Filipino leader met his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping on the sidelines of Belt and Road Forum on April 25. Reports said the bilateral meeting was highly cordial, underscoring Duterte’s commitment to pursue warmer ties with the Asian powerhouse.

His visit took place against the backdrop of spiking tensions in the South China Sea, where an armada of Chinese paramilitary vessels have surrounded the Philippine-occupied Thitu island in a move aimed at preventing Manila from upgrading facilities including a strategically significant air strip.

Duterte and his deputies had sounded strident tones over the dispute in the run-up to his visit, with the president threatening “suicide missions” against the Chinese vessels while his Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin said he had “no fear of war” even if it resulted in World War III.

None of that bellicose rhetoric was on display during Duterte’s visit to Beijing, however, raising questions about how much of the rhetoric was for domestic consumption in the wake of rising anti-China sentiment ahead of pivotal midterm elections in May.

Protesters holds placards with portraits of China’s President Xi Jinping during a rally in front of the Chinese consulate in Manila, November 21, 2018, held to coincide with Xi’s visit to the Philippines. Photo Ted Aljibe/AFP

Both leaders agreed to expand bilateral cooperation, particularly in the realm of infrastructure development and counter-narcotics operations. The issues are core to Duterte’s domestic agenda, including war on drugs and “Build, Build, Build” policies.

The Philippines reportedly secured up to US$12 billion of investment deals during Duterte’s visit, China-backed initiatives which are officially expected to generate more than 21,000 jobs.

China has promised as much as $26 billion in aid and investment, including BRI related ventures, since Duterte rose to power in mid-2016, though to date almost none of those funds have been delivered.

Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said that both sides focused on “the framework of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and how this will further help in the economic development of the Philippines” during Duterte’s visit.

“President Xi manifested that China will provide more resources to Luzon and Mindanao to spur regional economic growth, as well as promote Clark Green City through the building of an industrial park,” the Philippine spokesman added referring to the transformation of the former US military base.

The two leaders also presided over the signing of a Handover Certificate Grant Aid for the Dangerous Drugs Abuse Treatment and Rehabilitation Centers Project in the Philippines. This marked a ceremonial handover of Chinese-financed drug treatment facilities in Sarangani and Agusan del Norte in Duterte’s home island of Mindanao.

Philippines-China-Rodrigo Duterte-Xi Jinping
Collage image of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Image: Facebook

China has been the only major power to openly back Duterte’s controversial drug war, which rights groups claim has taken the lives of as many as 16,000 drug suspects and prompted the International Criminal Court to make preliminary investigations into the killings.

The two sides also signed an exchange of Letters on Production Capacity and Investment Cooperation between China and the Philippines, which will aim to enhance cooperation between the Philippines’ National Economic Development Authority and China’s parallel National Development and Reform Commission.

In that direction, China pledged 1 billion renminbi ($148 million) in official development assistance to the Philippines. The implications of the cooperation for economic coordination were not immediately clear.

The latest round of cooperative vows came at a crucial juncture in bilateral relations as the Philippines confronts Chinese paramilitary vessels likely belonging to the People’s Liberation Army Maritime Militia Forces surrounding Thitu island.

Duterte’s critics have claimed China’s economic offerings come with a hidden agreement that Manila will not challenge its expansionist designs in the South China Sea which strategic analysts believe will eventuate in the establishment of an Aerial Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the contested area.

The disputed Thitu island, located in the Spratly island chain in the South China Sea, has been under Philippine occupation since the early 1970s. The Philippines is currently upgrading facilities on the island for its permanently stationed military and civilian residents.

South China Sea-Map-Reefs-China-Philippines copy

Chinese vessels have also surrounded the Philippine-claimed Sandy Cay sandbar, a low tide elevation within Thitu’s territorial sea, and have been spotted close to the nearby Loaita and Lankiam Cay Islands, which have been under Philippine jurisdiction for decades.

Duterte reportedly raised the South China Sea disputes with Xi, including Manila’s 2016 landmark arbitration award vis-à-vis China at The Hague, which legally nullified China’s expansive claims across the contested maritime area. Beijing has refused to acknowledge the decision, which lacks an enforcement mechanism.

“The President raised this and the Chinese maintained their position. So there are differences,” Philippine Ambassador to Beijing Chito Sta. Romana told reporters on April 26. The envoy, however, did not clarify whether China intends to withdraw its armada from the disputed areas.

“There is no need for China. It’s a waste of time to just stay there. And the Chinese took note of this,” the Philippine envoy claimed. “Because the Philippines, we are not a threat to China and the Chinese indicated also that they will stick to their policy of peace development,” he added.

Romana said there is “basic consensus” that “although we proceed with some differences, these can be resolved through peaceful, diplomatic means. And the Chinese side expressed the willingness in the interest of friendship and cooperation to address some of the issues we have raised.”

He claimed that “the atmosphere has already improved with the talks with the Chinese” and that this “is a way of easing the tension and as for the actual situation on the ground, we have to wait for the actual report from the people who are there.”

Philippines Ambassador to China Chito Sta Romana in a file photo. Image: Facebook

Experts and critics in Manila, however, remained unconvinced.

Jay Batongbacal, a prominent maritime law expert from the University of the Philippines, claimed that “we have not received reports that anything has really substantially changed. And as late as this past [Catholic] Holy Week, of course, we have received reports that actually the activities have continued and it causes a lot of concern,” he added.

China’s recent mass harvesting of endangered clams in the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal have only exacerbated the bilateral tensions. “There is an issue of accountability. If that is the case, how come this is happening? And that is an issue that we continue to discuss,” Romana told reporters.

Batongbacal, however, maintained that “[t]hese activities, particularly the clam digging and the destruction of the coral reef, were happening right in full view of the China coast guard even. So we can say really that nothing has changed.”

The Philippine envoy has maintained that diplomacy is important “so that we can resolve this slowly over time. Sovereignty issue as you know can take years, if not decades, many generations.”

For the Dutrte administration, the priority is “not to lose what you’re holding on to and to gain access if you lost whatever you have lost,” Romana said. “And, at the same time, to make sure that this underlying difference in sovereignty does not become an obstacle to developing relations.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, is shown the way by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in October 2016. Photo: AFP.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, is shown the way by his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping before a signing ceremony in Beijing in October 2016. Photo: AFP.

As for the Sandy Cay, the Philippine ambassador said that there is a provisional agreement by both sides not to occupy the disputed sandbar, which is located between the Philippine-occupied Thitu island and Chinese-occupied Subi Reef, which it knows as Zhubi Reef.

“The Chinese are watching us that we won’t occupy and we are watching them they won’t occupy,” he said.  “And for the Philippines, it is part of [Thitu]. And the Chinese consider it part of their own area. So the key right now is keep it unoccupied.

“There is this Philippine position for China not to swarm and not to prevent our access in terms of supply lines that have remained open and so we’ve been able to keep that,” he claimed.

But as Duterte departs Beijing, it’s not clear to most observers that Beijing necessarily agreed or will uphold to what Philippine officials claim the two sides agreed to on both economic and security fronts.