Sino-Philippine ties are showing signs of cooling since the two countries made friends in 2016, according to a recent survey on how much Filipinos trust their powerful Asian neighbor.
Social Weather Stations, the Metro Manila research institution behind that survey, released new numbers last month saying people’s trust had fallen to a one-year low. It found that 51% felt “little trust” and 27% placed “much trust” in China.
The institution’s surveys, seen as bellwethers of popular opinion, reflect a growing resentment of Beijing’s pressure on the Philippines over contested claims in the South China Sea and perceptions that Chinese nationals have too much sway over the economy, Philippine citizens told Voice of America this week.
Hundreds of Chinese vessels have passed near Philippine-held islets in the sea’s contested Spratly archipelago this year as late as April. In early June, a Chinese fishing boat hit and sank a Filipino boat near the disputed sea’s Recto Bank, raising questions about a possible ramming incident.
“A sinking of a Filipino vessel, any incident like those gets magnified 100 times, which is probably not good for the relationship with China, because it erodes whatever little trust there remains,” said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore’s public policy school.
Since Sino-Philippine ties began warming in late 2016, China has offered at least $4.7 billion for infrastructure projects in the Southeast Asian country, socioeconomic planning secretary Ernesto Pernia said in February in Manila.
Now some Filipinos believe Chinese nationals are taking over local businesses by marrying Philippine nationals, said Rhona Canoy, president of an international school in the southern Philippines, who is part of a politically influential family in the country. Foreigners legally cannot own businesses outright.
Chinese or Chinese-Filipino citizens run most Philippine-based businesses today, due to historical trade and investment trends, the consultancy China Philippines United Enterprises says.
"The Chinese being here goes beyond just the maritime border and area dispute," Canoy said. "A lot of that which is more directly impacting our people is the fact that they are the ones who are opening businesses."
Fear, hope and bewilderment
People interviewed randomly this week on two parts of Luzon, the Philippines’ largest island, often hesitated to discuss China.
Some professed no knowledge of the issues. Others said they worried about China eroding Philippine claims to the South China Sea, including 10 islets their government controls in the Spratly archipelago. One was working in China as an English teacher – dependent on Chinese students for her income.
For Santy Mallorca, a 50-year-old motor-trike driver, China represents a threat to his government’s maritime claims. “Because so many people get money from fishing – accidents, you know,” he said.
About 2 million Filipinos depend on fishing for a living. “Maybe China conquers the Philippines,” a roadside breakfast stall vendor said.
Winston Sayson, a 41-year-old who was waiting Tuesday for a flight in the capital Manila, said China showed no obvious signs of deposing the Philippines from the disputed sea – or of helping it economically. He said he wasn’t worried.
Only 27% of Social Weather Stations respondents said most of what the Chinese government wants in the Philippines is “good for the Filipinos.”
Questions for the Philippine president
Filipinos may worry little about China because they trust Duterte to handle foreign relations, Araral said. The president had earned a 68% net satisfaction rating in the second quarter this year, Social Weather Stations survey found. Duterte plans to bring up the maritime dispute with China at a meeting before month’s end with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Opposition politicians who tried to make China an issue in the May midterm congressional elections this year couldn’t beat candidates backed by Duterte.
People’s views about China “depend on who’s handling the relationship,” Araral said. Whoever succeeds Duterte in 2022 may chart Sino-Philippine relations based more on “sentiments on the ground,” he added.