RP-China Relations at 45 Under the Covid-19 Pandemic

by Rommel C. Banlaoi, PhD

9 June 2020

Today is the 45th anniversary of the official establishment of Philippines-China relations. It also marks the Philippines-China friendship Day. The COVID-19 pandemic has strongly demonstrated that friendship is solidified amidst crises and difficulties.

When the Philippine government declared quarantine measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, China, as a long-time friend, immediately offered its assistance and unwaveringly expressed its willingness to cooperate with the Philippines.  In one of his public statements, President Rodrigo Duterte thanked China for supporting the Philippines in its battle against the infectious disease.  Duterte also dismissed rumors that the novel coronavirus originated in a Chinese laboratory, which was the same conclusion reported by the World Health Organization, top Western scientists and even the United States Chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley.  Counting on China’s helping hand, Duterte has even urged Beijing to prioritize the Philippines once it develops an antibody against the coronavirus disease 2019.

Upon request of the Philippine government, Beijing quickly responded by sending to Manila 12 members of its Anti-Epidemic Medical Expert Team on April 5 in order to support the Philippines in its battle against Covid-19.  The Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines, Huang Xilian, said China deployed its medical team to the country in order to “exchange experience and practice, with the aim to further improve the Philippines’ epidemic prevention and control policies and enhance the diagnosis, treatment and executive ability.” Most members of this medical team had their frontline experiences in Wuhan of China’s Hubei province.

Aside from the medical team — which already left on April 19 after two weeks of engaging with Filipino health officials and experts in the Department of Health (DoH), Research Institute for Tropical Medicine (RITM), Lung Center and Philippine General Hospital and also the general public in an online Q&A session — China also donated medical supplies to the Philippines in the form of 102,000 test kits, 400,000 surgical masks, 40,000 medical N95 masks, 15,000 medical protective suits, 5,000 medical face shields and 30 non-invasive ventilators.  Moreover, it assisted the Philippines in purchasing around 10,000 cubic meters of anti-epidemic supplies and  “a large amount of medicine,” not to mention donations coming from China’s private big corporations and local authorities. The Philippines also requested the assistance of China to prioritize the delivery of the Beijing Genomics Institute laboratory equipment worth $2.5 million (around P126.9 million), which arrived on April 22, to help fast-track the much-needed testing of Filipinos.

A number of enterprises and civil society groups, such as Jack Ma Foundation, Hong Kong Prudential Enterprise, Huawei Corp., Bank of China and Panhua Group, also donated large quantities of medical supplies, including millions of personal protective equipment (PPE), to the Philippines. China’s local authorities like Fujian, Hainan, Shangdong, Guangzhou, Nanning and others  donated large quantities of medical supplies to their corresponding sister provinces and cities in the Philippines like Ilocos Norte, Manila, Cebu City and Davao City.

The Covid-19 pandemic provided opportunities for the Philippines and China to strengthen bilateral ties despite China’s low popularity ratings in the Philippines compared with the United States and Japan.  In fact, China’s low popularity in the Philippines, notwithstanding Beijing’s efforts to deepen friendship with Manila, is posing a challenge in Philippines-China relations. In the latest survey of Social Weather Stations in September 2019, 70 percent of Filipino respondents expressed strong worries about China, particularly in the context of the surge of Chinese working in the Philippines. The same survey said 78 percent of the respondents regarded Philippine relationship with the United States as more important than that with China.

Opposition forces in the Philippines even doubted China’s sincerity in helping the Philippines in the time of Covid-19 pandemic because of China’s continuing activities in the South China Sea.   China recently named 25 islands and reefs in the South China Sea in its efforts to bolster its territorial claims.  In mid-February 2020, a Chinese Navy ship pointed its fire control radar at a Philippine Navy ship conducting routine patrol at Commodore Reef.  This prompted the Philippine government to file a diplomatic protest with China on April 22, 2020 over the incident and for China’s current move to include parts of Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in one of the new districts of Sansha city of Hainan province.

Amid the pandemic and recent developments in the South China Sea, one Philippine senator demanded China to cover the Philippine government’s expenses in responding to Covid-19 as payment for China’s alleged destruction of Philippine reefs in the KIG.  But the Chinese Embassy in Manila responded, “At this trying time, it is ridiculously absurd and irresponsible to make such remarks for the sole purpose of catching eyeballs and for selfish political gains.”

In other words, the Philippines-China relation continues to be dynamic in the time of the pandemic. On the one hand, there is cooperation in Philippines-China relations to overcome the scourge of Covid-19.  On the other hand, conflict in Philippines-China relations remains as a result of the South China Sea dispute.

As both countries commemorate the 45 years of their bilateral ties on June 9, 2020, it is paramount for the Philippines and China to pay greater attention to the development of a strong people’s diplomacy to reinforce and complement government-to-government diplomacy.    Despite its current efforts to remain friendly with the Philippines, China remains unpopular in the Philippines because of its lack of effective strategy to communicate with Filipinos.

Filipino reactions against China’ music video, “Iisang Dagat” (One Ocean), were indications of Beijing’s difficulties in communicating with the Filipinos during the pandemic despite their centuries-old friendships.  China, therefore, needs to learn innovative and sensitive ways on how to talk to the Filipino public so that Filipinos can better understand China’s intentions and actions, appreciate China’s current attitude and empathize with China’s visions for the world — a community of shared future  for the whole humanity.

The author is the President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS) and a member of the Management Board of the World Association for Chinese Studies (WACS).  He is a Professorial Lecturer at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College, the Philippines. This piece is an updated version of an article published in Manila Times on 3 May 2020. Photo Credit: Manila Times.

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