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Duterte’s pivot to China against the grain

Posted on October 18, 2016

HE may have won an overwhelming mandate in May, but President Rodrigo R. Duterte will be swimming upstream when he leaves for China today on a four-day visit to balance foreign relations away from the United States, according to results of a Social Weather Stations (SWS) poll.

The Third Quarter 2016 Social Weather Survey -- conducted Sept. 24-27 via face-to-face interviews with 1,200 adults nationwide and with a ±3 percentage-point sampling error margin -- found 55% of Filipinos having “little trust,” 19% undecided, and 22% having “much trust” in China.

That yielded a “bad” -33 net trust in the Philippines’ giant northern neighbor, down nine points and a grade from the “poor” -24 logged in June 2016.

The SWS noted that China’s net trust rating has been positive in only seven out of 40 surveys since the pollster first included it in August 1994, reaching as high as a “moderate” +17 in June 2010 -- the eve of the start of former president Benigno S. C. Aquino III’s administration that challenged before an international court in The Hague in 2013 Beijing’s maritime claims to part of the South China Sea and won a landmark ruling against the northern giant last July -- and as low as a “bad” -46 in September 2015.

SWS classifies net trust ratings of at least +70 as “excellent”; +50 to +69 as “very good”; +30 to +49, “good”; +10 to +29, “moderate”; +9 to -9, “neutral”; -10 to -29, “poor”; -30 to -49, “bad”; -50 to -69, “very bad”; as well as -70 and below as “execrable.”

Sought for comment, Herman Joseph S. Kraft, University of the Philippines associate professor for Political Science, said in a mobile phone message that “the negative rating probably comes from sentiments regarding China’s attitude towards the arbitral decision.”

“The Chinese government’s refusal to accept the content of the award might be seen as defiance in the face of what Filipinos see as a legitimate decision.”

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In his departure speech at the Davao International Airport on Sunday before leaving, first to Brunei Darussalam and then to China, Mr. Duterte said: “I look forward to renewing the ties of friendship between the Philippines and China and to reaffirm the commitment to work closer to achieve shared goals for our countries and peoples.”

Mr. Kraft said that “President Duterte sees China as a necessary partner in his war in drugs because it is where illegal drugs entering the Philippines mostly come from.”

In comparison, the same survey saw the US getting the best score among seven countries tested for public trust, bagging a “very good” +66 (76% much trust, 11% little trust, rounded off) in September that was nevertheless six points down from June’s “excellent” +72.

SWS said that the US has been in positive territory since it first surveyed the superpower in December 1994. Its score has ranged since then from a “moderate” +18 in May 2005 to an “excellent” +82 in December 2013, and has been above +60 since June 2010.

Mr. Duterte’s pivot has been questioned by some analysts who have noted that the Philippine economy cannot afford to decouple drastically from its traditional ally and former colonial power.

Among others, latest available data from:

• the Philippine Statistics Authority show the US accounting for 15.89% of total Philippine export of goods at $5.786 billion in the eight months to August, though this was down 5.54% from the past year, while China got 10.38% at $3.781 billion, down 12.12% annually, and Hong Kong contributed 11.56% at $4.208 billion, up 2.98%;

• central bank show net foreign direct investments (FDI) from the US accounting for 1.6% of net FDI from all countries at $76.73 million in the seven months to July, down 86.67% from $580.48 million the past year, while China provided just $3.3 million, a reversal from $140,000, and Hong Kong providing $49.66 million down 8.71% from $54.4 million;

• also from the central bank show cash remittances from Filipinos in the US at nearly $5 billion also as of July -- a third of the $15.323-billion global total -- though relatively flat at 0.5% down from $5.025 billion in 2015’s comparable seven months, while the same periods saw flows from China at $95.826 million -- less than a percent of the total -- though more than three times $29.69 million the past year, while Hong Kong contributed $482.879 million -- about 3% of the total -- down 7.7% from $523.309 million;

• the Tourism department show visitors from the US steady in second place behind those from South Korea at 529,069 as of July -- making up 14.95% of the total -- while those from China accounted for 11.95% at 422,801.

Two other close Philippine economic and strategic partners -- Australia and Japan -- bagged “good” ratings from Filipinos.

Australia scored +47 (62% “much trust”, 15% “little trust”), steady from June’s similarly “good” +49. SWS noted that Australia has been getting positive net trust ratings since it was included in the survey in April 1995, ranging from a “neutral” +3 in September 1995 to a “very good” +55 in August 2012.

The same survey saw Japan obtaining a net trust rating of +34 (56% “much trust”, 21% “little trust”, rounded off) in September, 14 points and one grade above April’s “moderate” +20. “SWS first surveyed public trust in Japan in December 1994 and found ‘neutral’ net ratings from December 1994 to December 1996, ranging from -2 to +9,” the pollster said in its report. “It rose to ‘moderate’ +17 in June 1997, and has since then been at ‘moderate’ to ‘good’ levels, reaching as high as ‘good’ +47 in August 2012 and December 2013.”

Rated for the first time by the SWS were Norway and the Netherlands which scored “moderate” net trust ratings of +16 (41% “much trust”, 25% “little trust”) and +14 (40% “much trust”, 26% “little trust”), respectively.

The survey also found a “neutral” +3 (36% “much trust”, 34% “little trust”, rounded off) net trust rating for Taiwan, a 10-percentage point increase from the “neutral” -7 in the June 2013 survey. -- Raynan F. Javil