CAGAYAN DE ORO, PHILIPPINES - Filipinos largely continue to support U.S. military aid despite a string of anti-America comments from their new president, polls and interviews show, and some worry about his proposal for an alliance with China in light of a territorial dispute.
Some people in the Southeast Asian country, however, are prepared to give China a chance as their president, Rodrigo Duterte, visits Beijing this week to discuss economic aid for his impoverished country. Duterte said Thursday he would separate from the United States militarily and economically.
The moves follow U.S. criticism of suspected extrajudicial killings in Duterte’s anti-drug campaign.
But a new survey this week from the Philippine-based nonprofit research institution Social Weather Stations shows some of the highest trust ever for the United States, which colonized the Philippines from 1898 to 1946. People on the ground say they still want help from the Western superpower in resisting Muslim rebels as well as Chinese vessels in waters off its west coasts.
Kirk Nagac, 27, a job seeker in the southern Philippine city Cagayan de Oro, looks to the United States for advanced military equipment.
“It’s good we use American aid in the Philippines, but I don’t know whether the president will allow it, but for me it’s not a problem,” Nagac said. “I don’t know if we need China, because the U.S. is helping us in the Philippines.”
According to Social Weather Stations, 76 percent of Filipinos place “much trust” in the United States and 22 percent have the same level of trust in China. Trust in the United States has risen over the year to date, the research organization says.
Duterte has said that joint military exercises with the United States earlier this month would be the last. He has also asked U.S. advisers, after 14 years, to stop helping Philippine forces fight the violent Abu Sayyaf Muslim rebels in the archipelago’s southwest.
His push for a more “independent” foreign policy would make sense, but pushing the United States away risks a backlash at home, said Carl Baker, director of programs with the U.S. think tank CSIS Pacific Forum.
“He’s at risk of alienating fairly significant numbers in the Philippine establishment who have long relations with the United States, both in the defense community and in the business community, and so I think he really needs to perhaps slow down his pace a bit and get some feedback from Philippine people themselves,” Baker said.
Filipinos support the U.S. aid because it comes from the world’s strongest military and a fellow democratic country. Research database Globalfirepower.com rates the U.S. military as the world’s strongest, with the Philippines at No. 51.
The United States has also kept favor by working in the background, at the request of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, rather than deploying troops in a way that would feel awkwardly like the colonial years.
Washington and Manila signed a Mutual Defense Treaty in 1951 obligating each side to support the other if attacked by a third party. Two years ago the two sides reached an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement that allows a rotation of U.S. troops and joint military exercises aimed at Chinese maritime encroachments.
Duterte, during his visit to Beijing this week, told Chinese state television Wednesday that China was “the only hope of the Philippines economically.”
He pledged Thursday to become “dependent” on China for a “long time” and said he had aligned himself with Chinese ideology. The two countries were expected to sign deals worth more than $13 billion, according to Philippine media. They also agreed to shelve the South China Sea sovereignty dispute.
China had pushed for dialogue since losing a world arbitration court ruling in July. Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino filed for arbitration to stop Chinese vessels from passing within his country’s 370-km (200 nautical-mile) exclusive ocean economic zone.
Filipinos say they are leery of closer ties with China due to the four-year-old maritime dispute, which has cut into Manila’s claims in the Spratly Island archipelago off its west coast. China uses historical records to claim nearly the entire South China Sea, including the Philippine exclusive economic zone.
“I think we’re all concerned about the encroachment of China on the offshore islands of the Philippines, so I think that has to be a balancing factor even if we open relations with China,” said Antonio Ledesma, archbishop of Cagayan de Oro. “Maybe the statements of the president have to be taken with a grain of salt.”
But China has a reputation for investing in other Southeast Asian countries rather than just handing them aid, some Filipinos argue. The Philippines is pushing for new infrastructure and factory investment to stoke economic growth now driven largely by overseas remittances and back-office work for multinationals.
China can offer the Philippines tourists and infrastructure financing in particular, said Alicia Garcia Herrero, chief Asia Pacific economist with the French investment bank Natixis, though it may come at a political cost.
“Our president not only wants to be friendly to the U.S. but also to our neighbors China and Russia. It’s only practical to talk,” said Dexter Feliciano, founder of MyLegalWhiz, a law advice service in metro Manila. “The U.S. just gives us aid. China is talking about investments. The administration wants to end welfare colonialism. What we need is really investment.”