The Philippines' president is betting big on a trip to China, but he may be overplaying his hand

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will arrive in China for a state visit next week, a trip that has generated much enthusiasm among his country’s business community.

For Duterte, too, the visit is an opportunity, coming after months of his efforts to improve relations with Beijing.

China’s appeal is both economic and political. The Asian giant, the world’s second-largest economy, offers a lucrative export market for Philippine goods, and Duterte has said he’s interested in securing investment for infrastructure projects in his country from Chinese investors.

Diplomatically, Duterte’s overtures to China have come alongside his rebukes of the US, the Philippines’ longstanding ally. He has condemned the US for its colonial legacy in the Philippines and spoken of weaning his country off American influence, citing Washington’s declining economic and military power.

Duterte’s eastern ambitions may tax his political capital, however. While he has high approval ratings (inline with his predecessors at the same point in their terms), support for outreach to Beijing may be quite different.

On foreign policy, a June survey of Filipinos found China had a net trust rating of -24, classified as “poor.” The US, on the other hand, is generally very popular, with a poll last summer finding 92% approval among Filipinos.

“What is being asked by critics in the Philippines is why does an independent foreign policy mean distancing yourself from your traditional allies …” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said on the CSIS podcast. “Why is a prerequisite for a close relationship with China to spurn the US …”

It may be that Duterte is trying play China and the US off each other in order to secure the best deals and relations for the Philippines, but the way in which he has done that risks overplaying his hand, spoiling one relationship for another that may not be more beneficial.

During his presidential campaign, Duterte said he was willing to “set aside” his country’s dispute with China over the latter’s claims in the South China Sea in return for infrastructure investment. And, after a July 12 international-court ruling rejecting China’s expansive claims, Duterte hasn’t capitalised on the legal victory.

He’s also backed off of some of his own country’s claims in the sea. “Let’s just not dwell on Scarborough because we cannot fight them,” Duterte said this week, referring to a fishing area seized by China in 2012.

In this context, Duterte’s simultaneous spurning of the US and embrace of China is “doubly concerning from a more practical standpoint, because if … he really expects to have fruitful negotiations with China on the thorny issues of the South China Sea and try to reach a deal, why is he giving up his only leverage, which is the US treaty commitment?” Poling asked.

“Duterte’s bid to downgrade the U.S. alliance,” Poling told Business Insider, will damage the Philippines’ negotiating position when Duterte sits down to talk with China.

“The threat of U.S. intervention is what has prevented more overt Chinese aggression at Second Thomas Shoal or Scarborough Shoal,” Poling added. “Now Duterte is throwing that leverage overboard before he has even gotten into a room with Xi Jinping.”

‘Popularity is especially fickle in the Philippines’

Two polls gauging Duterte’s approval since he took office this summer have put his support on par with that of his predecessors at the same point in their terms, as noted by Prashanth Parameswaran at The Diplomat.

The +64 approval rating he garnered in poll of his first 100 days in office was only 4 percentage points higher than that of Benigno Aquino III, Duterte’s predecessor, and of Joseph Estrada, president from 1998 to 2001, and 2 percentage points lower than Fidel Ramos, president from 1992 to 1998, at the same point in their terms.

Duterte’s 91% approval rating in a July poll was only slightly higher than Aquino’s when he came into office.

And, as Parameswaran noted, a close reading of survey results regarding Duterte’s policies — the drug war in particular — reveals ambivalence on some points and dismay on others.

“Popularity is especially fickle in the Philippines and can change back and forth quite dramatically very quickly either because of or in spite of certain policies, and often interacting with elite opinion, sentiment within key institutions like the military and legislature, and, of course, events or crises,” Parameswaran writes.

The fickleness of Philippine sentiment may again be evident after Duterte returns from Beijing.

“We’ll see how popular he is in the next round, when it’s made clear that he probably doesn’t get a deal from China,” Poling said, and “that he might very well drive a wedge between the Philippines and its only treaty ally.”

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