International politics is not quite the game it used to be; in an age characterised by populist upheaval, declining faith in supranational institutions and the re-assertion of the nation state, conventional norms have gone quite far out the window.
Nowhere is this more apparent than South-East Asia, where various states have opted to forgo the (relative) adherence to liberal principles increasingly mandated by the west for close ties. Why deal with the US when China can offer similar economic and military benefits while casting a blind eye to such behaviour? After all, China itself increasingly resembles an totalitarian state, with its prolific censorship and brutal repression of perceived political opposition. For such a state to demand upstanding conduct would simply be bad manners.
Following South-East Asian counterparts such as Thailand and Cambodia, the latest nation to leap into Xi Jinping’s embrace is the Philippines. While it may massage the ego of Manila’s leadership in the short term, Chinese diplomacy nearly always comes with strings attached, the implications of which will be far more damaging to the Philippines’ interests than a slap on the wrist from the west.
The election of populist firebrand Rodrigo Duterte would serve as a turning point; not only is his rhetoric extreme by western sensibilities – in one of his numerous tirades against drug users, he stated that “Hitler massacred three million Jews. Now, there is three million drug addicts. I’d be happy to slaughter them” – but this concerningly translated into tangible action: by the end of 2016, the police had carried out around 4,800 extrajudicial killings while he was in power. Amnesty’s director of operations in the country, Jose Noel Olano, asserted in a statement that Duterte had “created a culture where anyone can kill or be killed”.
While Duterte’s style of government had already perturbed many western onlookers, it was his comparison of Obama to a “son of a whore” in a September 2016 press conference that caused the most friction, which subsequently led the US president to cancel a scheduled meeting between the two at a regional summit in Laos later that month. This was no gaffe on Duterte’s part, however – rather, it constituted a clear statement of intent: the Philippines would no longer act as a vehicle for US interests in the region.
Paradoxically, this has caused Manila to seek another powerful friend, but one which would disregard violations of human rights - hence their pivot to Beijing. Progress has already been made on this front: in November, Xi Jinping made the first state visit to the Philippines by his country in thirteen years, with Duterte stating on the occasion that “we have turned a new page and we are ready to write a new chapter of openness and co-operation” .
The crucial context here is that, up until 2016, the two states were locked in a spiteful territorial dispute over a section of the South China Sea, referred to by the Philippines as the “West Philippines Sea”. This was resolved when an international tribunal in the Hague ruled in Manila’s favour, further delegitimising Chinese harassment and securing Filipino sovereignty in the process.
Having your style of governance implicitly endorsed by one of the world’s largest economic and military powers is a lofty ideal for any authoritarian leader spurned by the west, but when dealing with China, the stick follows the carrot. During the aforementioned state visit, the two leaders agreed a deal on joint oil and gas development in the very region that Manila had previously fought to keep China out of: the West Philippines Sea.
While rapprochement between the two countries is still in its early stages, one thing is certain; if the Philippines seeks to protect its independence in the long term, inviting China into its backyard is a remarkably expedient decision.