Relations between the Philippines and China have changed?

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thediplomat-ace-10-1350x900-386x257At the start of his presidency in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte quickly initiated the resumption of friendly relations with China, saying that “the friendship and cooperation that have overcome many obstacles between thePhilippines and China would not only bring about prosperity and economic development to both countries, but also create a unique culture nourished by harmony and diversity”. He also urged citizens of the two countries to cultivate the values and ideals that fuel a strong resolve to usher in a period of greater peace and understanding and rise above the challenges ahead.

Philippines-China bilateral relations were increasingly warming up in many areas such as security and regional cooperation, trade, investment, tourism or culture. Right in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte received a pledge to provide up to $ 24 billion in credit for Manila to upgrade its infrastructure.

At the end of 2018, President Xi Jinping made a two-day visit to the Philippines. President Duterte called this visit a historic opportunity and President Xi called it a milestone in the history of exchange between the two countries”, the two sides signed 29 agreements covering from education and cultural cooperation to industrial park development, promoting infrastructure development, agricultural cooperation..., including a Memorandum of Understanding on Cooperation on Oil and Gas Development.

To the Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte once said, I just simply love Xi Jinping”.

However, by the beginning of 2019, the relationship between the two countries as well as the two leaders seemed to fade.

The Philippines has been disappointed by the highly expected but yet implemented economic agreements while China still pushed up field activities in the South China Sea and many of them seemed to directly target to the Philippines.

In the first three months of 2019, a fleet of Chinese maritime militia vessels gathered around Thitu Island - an island in Vietnam's Spratly Archipelago but occupied by the Philippines with a small military base and more than 200 civilians, making it the largest island that the Philippines occupies in the South China Sea.

The Philippine Secretaries of Foreign Affairs and Defense protested but could not change China's behavior. Under such a circumstance, President Duterte had to make it aloud demanding that China stops” and threaten to react strongly. Mr. Duterte warned China: “I have soldiers there” and “If you touch it, that’s another story. Then I will tell my soldiers ‘prepare for suicide missions”.

Around the same time, on April 4, 2019, the US and Philippine forces conducted a joint exercise on landing on a beach facing the South China Sea, the largest ever since 2016, when President Duterte declared separation from the US - the Philippines' only official military ally. The Philippines' pivot to China from the US, which is hoped by his government to help reduce confrontation with China because of overlapping claims in the South China Sea, became a spin without support.

Since the 1990s, China has occupied coral reefs and shoals in the South China Sea claimed by the Philippines and other countries, and carried out construction on them. In 2012, after the Philippine Navy attempted to arrest a number of Chinese fishermen near the Scarborough Shoal, over which both China and the Philippines claimed sovereignty, Chinese vessels patrolling around the shoal had forced Filipino fishermen to return several times. The Philippines sued China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA). In 2016, right after Mr. Duterte's election as president, the PCA ruled in favor of the Philippines, saying that China’s claims to Scarborough Shoal were unfounded and that China’s “nine dash line” was invalid.

Nationalism is very popular in the Philippines (as in China). During the time before that year's election, Mr. Duterte had even said that he would board a canoe to Scarborough Shoal to defend the Philippines' claims himself. But when he was elected, he chose to improve relations with China instead. He kept quiet to the rule of the PCA. For its part, China also pledged to invest heavily in roads, ports and railways in the Philippines. In addition, although China did force some Filipino ships to turn back, Beijing did not build any military facilities on Scarborough Shoal.

But the midterm elections are closing in. The Opposition has accused Mr. Duterte of selling the country to China and criticized that he was cheated when offering sovereignty over the South China Sea to China. Not many of the investments promised by China has materialized. Now Chinese is testing the Philippines' limits by its activities around Thitu island. Therefore, it is not surprising that Mr. Duterte, who is impulsive as well as expressive, seems to show a change of mind.

Moreover, if there were no agreement between the US and the Philippines, how US Secretary of State could made a statement on March 01, 2019 ensuring that the United States would defend the Philippines from an armed attack in the South China Sea and affirmed that any armed attack on Philippine would invoke the 1951Mutual Defence Treaty.

We should wait and see if the relationship between the Philippines and China could warm up again after the Philipplines' elections. However, it is clear that as China's ambition in the South China Sea remains unchanged but rather intensified, the Philippines' response is not only temporary . It has no way back when a foreign country is violating itsterritorial sovereignty.