Washington and Beijing watch as Duterte and boxer Manny Pacquiao trade blows
Ahead of the elections, the incumbent president and the famous boxer are vying for the leadership of the ruling party. Not up for reelection, the pro-Beijing Duterte will run as vice president. The U.S. is betting on Sarah Duterte, the head of state's daughter. With change of leadership in Manila, the Chinese could become more aggressive in the South China Sea.
Manila (AsiaNews) - Ahead of next May's presidential election, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and boxing champion Manny Pacquiao are trading blows for control of the PDP-Laban. The internal feud within the ruling party in the Philippines is being closely watched by China and the United States. Beijing would like to see the continuation of Duterte's policy, which has focused on strengthening relations with the Chinese (in exchange for investments that have only partially arrived), despite his country's traditional alliance with Washington.
The opposing factions of the PDP-Laban led by Duterte and Pacquiao are maneuvering to elect their own representative to the leadership of the party. The Philippine president cannot run for a second term; however, he announced last week that he would run as vice president.
Pacquiao has yet to confirm whether he will run for president. He has revealed in recent days that he will make a decision next month. The famous boxer has often criticized Duterte, accusing him of being too soft on China over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
Since his election in 2016, Duterte has built a privileged relationship with China. Unlike his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, he has sought to reduce tensions with the Chinese by deciding to ignore a ruling by The Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which termed Chinese claims to nearly 90 percent of the South China Sea "devoid of legal basis."
Manila, along with Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan (and to some extent Indonesia), opposes Chinese territorial claims. This has not prevented Beijing from militarizing some islands and coral banks in the area. To contain Chinese expansion, U.S. warships make regular patrols near these military outposts.
As soon as he was elected, Durtere announced the country's "separation" from its U.S. ally. His position has softened over time: at the end of July he abandoned the idea of cancelling the Visiting Forces Agreement that allows U.S. forces to operate in the Philippines.
Given its relations with the Chinese government, Washington would prefer to see an opponent of Duterte as president. Or at least a more "friendly" figure, such as Sarah Duterte, daughter of the president and mayor of the city of Davao. Compared to her father, the leader of the regional Hugpong ng Pagbabago party has positions closer to the United States. She has not yet clarified, however, whether she will run for president.
According to Collin Koh, a military affairs expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, a pro-U.S. Filipino president might lead to China attempting to change the status of the Scarborough Shoal. The sandy shoal has been occupied by Beijing since 2012, but is claimed by Manila. To maintain good relations with Duterte, the Chinese have so far avoided fortifying and militarizing the outcrop in the South China Sea. "The situation," Koh tells AsiaNews, "could change if China senses the tide turning as it observes the pre-election hustings [in the Philippines] unfold closer to the 2022 polls".
Koh points out that a Chinese action in the Scarborough Shoal would test the US commitment to the Philippines. However, he adds that it is wrong to place too much emphasis on a political reversal in Manila: "Even if it’s going to be a more U.S.-friendly administration after Duterte, Manila will still maintain close economic links with China since this is seen as vital for post-pandemic recovery."