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Is the Philippines Pivoting to China


By: Bob Boyer


The issue of pivoting to China has currently received much attention in the Philippines, and, as a consequence, in the U.S. It is one of two topics—the other is President Duterte’s controversial War on Drugs— for a presentation I will be attending. The talk is part of “The Great Decisions Series” of presentations sponsored by the International Center at St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wisconsin, where I spent many years teaching, and still enjoy attending cultural and other thought-provoking events.

Since I will be attending the event entitled “U.S and Philippine Relations,” I decided to brush up on the recent related news, especially since my wife and I have invited two Filipino friends to attend with us. The search results are quite a revelation. The fi rst item to catch my eye was by a somewhat controversial writer for “The Manila Times,” Rigoberto D. Tiglao. I confess I had not previously encountered Mr. Tiglao, but his January 23 article, “At long last, independence from the Eagles claws,” got my attention.

As the image of “the Eagle’s claws” effectively conveys the writer’s attitude. Mr. Tiglao is like many Filipinos of his generation (he is 67) whom I have met. He is critical of the heavy handed and thoughtless condescension with which the U.S. has often historically treated the Philippines. He reviews the text-book examples of how the U.S. contributed heavily to the reconstruction of wartime enemies Germany (Marshal Plan) and Japan (under MacArthur’s Governorship). And yet it mostly ignored its ally the Philippines. The Philippines continues largely as a site for U.S. military bases to offset the emerging rival China. Today the bases are on a “visiting” rather than permanent basis, which is cheaper. Tiglao applauds Duterte’s pivot away from the U.S. and to China, but he worries that rather than a graceful pivot it is a tug of war. He sees Duterte having to drag Filipinos, especially the “elites” and middle-class, away from their traditional reliance, as he calls it, on the U.S.

“Well, hello Mr. Tiglao,” I mused after reading what one might call his “Eagle’s claws” rebuttal. I agreed with much of his criticism of how the U.S. traditionally treated the Philippines more as a possession than an ally. And clearly an alliance between the Philippines and China is necessary to for Philippine security and economy. But I wondered, perhaps naively, why the Philippines couldn’t have productive relations with both countries. In any case I knew I needed other sources.

“Duterte’s Pivot to China: Gains, challenges, promises” (“@Inquirerdotnet,” July 18, 2019), provided a tentative but positive forecast. “Partnership with China in the fields of poverty alleviation, renewable energy, manufacturing, skills training, e-commerce and fi ntech may hold promise.” The author, Lucio Blanco Pitlo III comes with impressive credentials: Lecturer, Ateneo’s Chinese Studies Program; Research Fellow, Asian-Pacifi c Pathways to Progress Forward Foundation; U.P.’s Korea Research Center; contributing editor, Asian Politics and Policy. Mr. Pitlo concludes with a caution: “Balancing security and economic demands will shape the evolution of bilateral ties,” and “hard swings should be avoided to . . . ensure continuity.” I take “continuity” to include not dropping the old partners (U.S.) when adopting new ones.

More recently (Oct. 9, 2019), in a detailed essay, staff writer for “Nikkei Asian Review” Cliff Venzon details the numerous problems President Duterte has encountered in promoting the pivot to China and “separating” from the U.S., as he said when he announced the new direction. Problems include everything from local politicians wanting their “cut of the pie” to concerned national security players, including the Philippine Navy, over Chinese claims to the islands in the South China Sea also claimed by the Philippines. And polls show that Filipinos tend to trust the U.S. considerably more than China. And then there is the issue of broken promises, as Mr. Venzon suggests in the sub-title of his article: “Little has come of Bejing’s $45 bn of promised investment. But the Philippines President is doubling down.”

I will be very interested to hear what the “Great Decisions” speaker says about the pivot to China, and I promise to report that in a future column. In concluding, in fairness to Mr. Tiglao, and to be transparent, I note that I am a fan of Vice President Leni Robredo; Mr. Tiglao, to say the very least, is not. Bob Boyer welcomes your comments at

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