Vacillations and Dramas Exist in Sino-Philippines Relations Too

January 12, 2017

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Number 367 | January 11, 2017

Vacillations and Dramas Exist in Sino-Philippines Relations Too

By Chu Yin

The new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has damaged diplomatic relations for his country with his bold anti-US attitude and warming of Sino-Philippine relations. The Philippine attitude towards China has vacillated heavily. Since the founding of the Third Republic of the Philippines in 1946, there have been six distinct periods in Sino-Philippine relations:

The first period lasted from 1946 to 1960 when the Philippines adhered to anti-Communist party and anti-China policies, and thus was opposed to Chinese revolutionary rhetoric.

The second period began in late 1960 and ended in 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship fell. Under the Nixon Doctrine, Sino-Philippine relations began to thaw. The Chinese leadership took measures (such as lowering fuel prices to the Philippines in 1975) to promote economic activities and speed up the establishment of diplomatic relations. This was a steady, long-term process.

The third period from 1986-1998 commenced with the ascent of the Aquino-Ramos government. Due to the growth of the Taiwan economy especially during the latter part of the 1980s, the Philippine government sought Taiwanese investments to develop its economy; to that end, Manila strayed from the One China policy in favor of a One and Half Chinas policy, and thus was seen – successor to Aquino –  with suspicion in Beijing. Although the Ramos government adapted a foreign policy emphasizing full-scale diplomacy with Asia, it did not substantially change the policy prioritizing Taiwan. Meanwhile, sovereignty disputes between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea were on the rise in the mid-1990s.

The fourth period took place during the Estrada-Arroyo governments from 2001-2010. The Philippines continued to pursue territorial claims in the South China Sea as its predecessors had, however, both the Chinese and Philippine governments took more realistic and flexible stances and communicated more often with each other, strengthening mutual trust. During this period the Philippines returned to a One China policy. In 1995, Manila removed China from the list of Communist Central Ruled Economies, and in 1996 Chinese president Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the Philippines. During this visit, the two governments agreed on terms for a Sino-Philippine relationship of friendship, mutual trust and cooperation for the 21st Century, and decided to shelve differences and seek joint development over the South China Sea. The Arroyo government, though, continued to strengthen its political connections to the US during this time.

The fifth period was marked by the Benigno Aquino III government from 2010-2016. In 2009, the US, under the Obama administration, undertook a “Pivot to Asia,” while concurrent shifts in the domestic atmosphere of the Philippines earned the Arroyo government massive criticism for its economic cooperation with China. Aquino the Third – being pro-America and anti-China – won the election. Having campaigned on the slogan of anti-corruption, he not only cleared Arroyo’s political assets, but also took a strong stance on the South China Sea issue.

President Duterte, elected in 2016, represents the sixth period of Sino-Philippines relations. In contrast to his tough rhetoric towards the US, Duterte has shown a realistic attitude towards China, after President Aquino III had forced China to take a back seat. The Philippines under President Duterte shelved the arbitration against Beijing and thus won generous aid and the opening of fishing grounds on Huangyan Island from China, though the decision did not solve the impasse facing Sino-Philippine relations over the South China Sea.

Sino-Philippine relations have three basic features. First, relations with China are never the most important diplomatic relationship for the Philippines; Philippine-American ties are always more important. On the one hand, the Philippines adapts its relations with China according to the state of its relationship with the US. During the Nixon-era Sino-US cooperation against the Soviet Union, Sino-Philippine relations improved rapidly; however, when the U.S. returned its focus to the Asia Pacific area, Sino-Philippine progress was largely undone. On the other hand, the Philippines hedge against American influence by entertaining Chinese interests. This strategy is demonstrated in Duterte’s diplomatic turn.

Second, the Philippines’ self-centered, national interest-based foreign policy is always at the core of relations with China. When the Philippines perceived Taiwan as more valuable than China, it distanced itself from Beijing. When Manila saw China as a threat to its national security in the South China Sea, it turned back to the US. Later, feeling the pressure of US interests, the Philippines again warmed to China. Although many hold the point that the Philippines is merely a pawn of China and the US, the Philippines shows its own will and interests through these strategic vacillations.

“On the one hand, China should take advantage of this chance to bolster relations with Manila. On the other, Beijing should remain wary of historical fluctuations in the relationship.”

Third, compared with the US, China functions as a more external and secondary factor for the Philippines. China’s policy on Taiwan and the South China Sea do influence Sino-Philippine relations. On the contrary, the US is the primary actor in American-Philippine and Sino-Philippine relations. American choices for pro and anti-China Filipino politicians are always a crucial factor in Philippine elections. Philippine elite families wield top down influence over the country, and thus when more citizens participate in democracy, the impact of American policy upon Philippine lawmakers will be mitigated. Duterte might represent an inevitable step in the Philippine transition from family politics to democracy. However, this does not mean that the US will lose the Philippines or that Duterte will be an anti-America hero. It only means that the US cannot depend on its historical influence over Philippine elites, and may turn to other means of courting the Philippine decision makers.

As for China, the periodic swing of Sino-Philippine relations means China should remain cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, China should take advantage of this chance to bolster relations with Manila. On the other, Beijing should remain wary of historical fluctuations in the relationship. China should take a realistic attitude and seek cooperation with the US, to steady the swing of Philippine policy instead of attempting to dominate the region. Such a strategy would make Philippine policy less likely to change with each new administration, and would protect Duterte from American scorn. Shelving differences over the South China Sea issue for the time being could make a later renegotiation more likely.

About the Author

Chu Yin is an Associate Professor at the University of International Relations and an Academic Committee Member at the Pangoal Institution. He can be contacted at

The East-West Center promotes better relations and understanding among the people and nations of the United States, Asia, and the Pacific through cooperative study, research, and dialogue.

Established by the US Congress in 1960, the Center serves as a resource for information and analysis on critical issues of common concern, bringing people together to exchange views, build expertise, and develop policy options.

The Asia Pacific Bulletin (APB) series is produced by the East-West Center in Washington. DC

APB Series Editor: Dr. Satu Limaye, Director, East-West Center in Washington DC
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3 thoughts on “Vacillations and Dramas Exist in Sino-Philippines Relations Too

  1. If you are Duterte, would you choose someone who lectures you all day and night on human rights, or its abuse thereof, or someone who is probably worse than you, as a “friend”?

  2. C’mon Professor Chu Yin, the US did not recognize the One China Policy until seven years after the signing of the Shanghai Communique in 1972. You can’t expect the Philippines to recognize the One China Policy before the US had full diplomatic relations with the PRC in 1979.

    Taiwan remained a stumbling block throughout the negotiations between the US and China. While the US sought improved relations with Beijing, it still officially recognized Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government on Taiwan. In fact, the US had been inching toward a “two Chinas” policy for years. When the United Nations voted on whether to admit the People’s Republic of China, the US reversed its 20-year opposition to seating the PRC, but opposed any effort to expel the Republic of China (Taiwan). The US lost the fight for dual representation. The PRC gained admission to the UN, ROC was ousted — and the US was left to juggle relations with two countries that both saw themselves as the sole legitimate government of all of China.

    The Chinese regarded the presence of US troops on Taiwan as a violation of China’s sovereignty and pressed for full US military withdrawal from the island. Nixon and Kissinger wanted to condition a withdrawal on enlisting China’s help in ending the Vietnam War. And while China viewed its dealings with Taiwan as a strictly internal issue, to be handled as it saw fit, the American insisted that the Chinese resolve the Taiwan question without the use of force. In the end, both sides made concessions. As Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoirs, neither the US nor PRC was willing to let the Taiwan issue become an obstacle to their emerging new relationship: “The basic theme of the Nixon trip — and the Shanghai Communique — was to put off the issue of Taiwan for the future, to enable the two nations to close the gulf of twenty years and to pursue parallel policies where their interests coincided.”

    The PRC firmly rejected any “two Chinas” formulation, declaring unequivocally that “the Government of the People’s Republic of China is the sole legal government of China” and “Taiwan is a province of China.” The US, in deft phrasing, “acknowledged”, not using the word “recognized”, “that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”, but neatly avoided the question of who should govern this “one China.”

    To get the Chinese to agree on this ambiguity in the Shanghai Communique, Nixon and Kissinger went significantly further on Taiwan in their private talks with Premier Chou En Lai than in the communique. As recently released notes and transcripts reveal, the Americans offered Chou extensive assurances that they intended to open full diplomatic relations with Beijing as soon as possible — and were willing to sacrifice Taiwan to do so. In the wake of the Watergate scandal, however, Nixon was unable to carry through on these promises, and the U.S. didn’t establish full diplomatic relations with the PRC until 1979.

    Yet once the Shanghai Communique was issued, the writing was on the wall. As journalist and China scholar James Mann has written, ” …Nixon’s initiative conveyed America’s acceptance, for the first time, of the outcome of the Chinese civil war and the defeat of Chiang Kai-shek. The United States stopped challenging the Chinese Communist Party’s authority to rule the country…. The American acceptance (in the communique) and, indeed, its embrace (in Nixon’s private talks) of a one-China policy was to govern American conduct from that point onward.”

    Every thing went on fine until an idiot like Trump came along….

  3. quote:- ” …that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China”

    From Taiwan’s perspective, China is a part of Taiwan.

    If the winner of a civil war has the legitimate, legal right to rule a country, as we saw in America’s own civil war, then Taiwan can legitimately attack the mainland, (since the Chinese civil war has not officially ended), win, wipe out the CCP and rule all of China from Taiwan or Beijing or Xian or Mount Er Mei. And of course the mainland can also do likewise to the Taiwan Island.

    So we must first decide whether we want to talk about historical constitutional law; past / present / future military might; festering wounded nationalistic pride or just plain sense?

    Until we do, Trump or no Trump, we will only hear grown men whining and threatening each other

    BTW, Trump will find very quickly, after his coronation, (and getting off from his Trump Tower), that 68 years of history cannot be re-written just because he ordered it, unless he is prepared to start and win WWIII to get it done.

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