“Are we throwing away decades of military partnership…just like that? On DU30’s say-so???” Former president Fidel Ramos posed these questions – and many others regarding the status of the U.S.-Philippine alliance – in a recent editorial calling Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte a “huge disappointment and letdown”.
Ramos, who was president from 1992 to 1998, was appointed by DU30 (a popular acronym for Mr Duterte) earlier this year as special envoy for the South China Sea to manage diplomatic relations with China.
China being the Philippines’ second largest trading partner and third largest export market, the government wanted to ensure that political differences did not spillover into trade and economic relations. A former military officer and Secretary of Defense, Ramos was tasked with brokering discussions aimed at settling the maritime dispute.
What may have spurred Ramos’ sudden criticism of Mr Duterte was his recent harsh rhetoric towards US officials. This came as a surprise to many, including Ramos, who along with his country is a longtime ally of the US. Many fear that the ongoing verbal spat could put the alliance between The Philippines and the U.S. at risk, along with the development aide that comes with it – in 2015 the Philippines received approximately $175 million in U.S. development assistance in 2015, and a total of $50 million in foreign military financing.
However, attempts to revitalize the ties between the Philippines and China began to take root well before this. In the beginning of 2016, under former President Benigno Aquino, the Philippines’ preliminary commitment to join China’s multilateral development bank was a turning point of particular note. The pledge helped usher along Manila’s effort to increase economic engagement with China despite the ongoing South China Sea dispute.
The presidential delegation to China on 18 – 21 October could be yet another significant event, with Duterte leading a visit to Beijing with over 250 Philippine business executives.
“My grandfather is Chinese. It’s only China that can help us,” Duterte told Chinese state news agency Xinhua just before departing for the four-day trip. Needless to say, Ramos informed the president’s office in early October that he would not be joining on the trip.
The visit is timely, as the Philippines will soon be formalizing their previous commitment as one of the 57 prospective founding members of the new China-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).
Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua and Philippines’ finance secretary, Carlos G. Dominguez III already met in early September, walking away with an alleged agreement to boost cooperation in agricultural trade, currency swap procedures, customs, project financing, and tourism.
Cooperation on public infrastructure projects could also be on the table as China seeks to build upon deals such as the 25-year contract that the State Grid Corporation of China won in 2008 to upgrade and operate the rundown Philippine electricity grid.
As Duterte continues to show signs of disrupting longstanding foreign policy, the impact of these shifts will be watched carefully. However, it remains to be seen if comments made by Ramos will have any influence on the popular praise that Duterte has received from the broader population in the first four months of his administration.