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In the Philippines, China Needs to Work Harder to Sell its Narrative of Being a Good Neighbour

May 17, 2019 Ira Paulo Pozon, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow

In the Philippines, China Needs to Work Harder to Sell its Narrative of Being a Good Neighbour

Ira Paulo Pozon, 2018 AsiaGlobal Fellow, says historical mistrust of Beijing presents challenges to ties with Philippines. 

The Chinese saying “a close neighbour is better than a distant relative” would make for a good slogan for China’s neighbourhood diplomacy. It could be a fulcrum on which Beijing anchors its public relations strategy as it tries to address concerns over the flow of its people, investments and technologies abroad.

The Philippines, a country that has witnessed a transformation of its ties with China over the past three years, presents an interesting case. In this Southeast Asian country with long-standing ties to the United States, China is confronted with serious public relations challenges.

The influx of Chinese workers and capital has raised unease in the Philippines. Hence, China is under pressure to present an appealing narrative. It also needs to craft effective responses to untoward incidents.

Before his historic state visit last November, President Xi Jinping, in a signed letter published in three Philippine newspapers, reiterated China’s desire for good neighbourly relations. He described both countries as “neighbours facing each other across the sea” with a long history of peaceful exchanges and people-to-people connections.

Xi cited the pre-colonial voyages of Zheng He to the islands and the goodwill visit of a Sulu king to Ming China, where he was buried upon his death – one of only two foreign royal tombs in China. Xi also mentioned the Chinese ancestry of Philippine national hero Jose Rizal and that a celebrated Chinese general, Ye Fei, was born in the Philippines. However, these deep links have failed to dispel suspicions about Chinese intentions in the country.

To say that China and its citizens are not popular in the Philippines is putting it mildly. Anti-Chinese opinions abound in daily discussions, especially on social media. With China emerging as the country’s largest trade partner, investor and, possibly, tourist market very soon, these outbursts may have a serious adverse impact on business. Calls to boycott Chinese products and outright indignation over anything and everything Chinese undermine expanding economic ties.

During the midterm election campaigns, government critics played up the issue of Chinese workers allegedly violating labour and immigration laws and taking jobs away from locals. Online posts about Chinese-only restaurants and a mall that showed Chinese subtitles for the Avengers: Endgame film garnered thousands of strongly worded comments and shares. While no proof of discriminatory selection of customers has been found, a surprise inspection by the Department of Trade and Industry revealed that some Chinese restaurants lack the necessary business permits.

In the run-up to the midterm elections, anti-Chinese sentiment reached fever pitch. Loan agreements were scrutinised. A senate inquiry looked into the presence of thousands of Chinese workers. Among voters, a candidate’s stand on China has been a deciding factor, alongside positions on other national issues like the drug war, death penalty, federalism and tax reform.

Maritime disputes and Filipinos’ historical mistrust of China have long presented challenges to relations between the two countries . Increasing Chinese labour migration into the Philippines and some Chinese citizens behaving badly further complicates the problem.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s shift in relations with China remains a divisive foreign policy issue. Damage to the marine environment due to China’s reclamation activity in the South China Sea and Chinese harassment of Filipino fishermen have put pressure on Manila to stand strongly against Beijing on the contested waters.

On the second anniversary of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s ruling in favour of the Philippines on its dispute with China in the South China Sea, banners posted on several footbridges in Manila saying “welcome to the Philippines, province of China” exposed the underlying discontent with the government’s China policy.

The government and business sector, on the other hand, laud greater investment, partnerships and access to the huge Chinese market. Developers have welcomed the property boom, but it has alienated the local middle class, who are being outspent by Chinese buyers. Funding for infrastructure projects has been warmly received, but worries over debt sustainability and the conditions attached have persisted.

Expanded tourism generates a trickle-down effect even to informal economies, but locals resent increasing Chinese investments in the small and medium-sized enterprise sector.

In fairness, the gap between Filipinos’ perception of the US and China is narrowing, especially under Duterte’s watch. But this public attitude remains tenuous. A 2018 Pew report revealed that 43 per cent of surveyed Filipino respondents held unfavourable views of China, compared with 53 per cent who approved of it. But a local poll in 2018 showed only 27 per cent agreed that Chinese intentions for the country are good, while 44 per cent disagreed and 29 per cent were undecided. China could win over the significant “undecided” sector if it can tell its story better.

China’s soft power, which could help allay concerns about its continued rise, remains underdeveloped. Except in the area of cuisine, some borrowed vocabulary and tourism, Chinese civilisation, culture and language remain alien to many Filipinos. Much work needs to be done to bridge this divide, in novel ways. Meanwhile, despite the geographical proximity and historical ties, the narrative of the good neighbour still rings hollow.

This article first appeared in the South China Morning Post on May 17, 2019.

The views expressed in the reports featured are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Asia Global Institute’s editorial policy.

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