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Four reasons Duterte will have to change tune on China and U.S.

Even in the capricious world of diplomacy, few would have expected such a dramatic diplomatic policy shift as that signalled by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte when he announced Manila was deserting Washington for Beijing.

During his recent high-profile visit to China, the outspoken new leader declared that he had realigned himself with China’s “ideological flow” and announced the Philippines’ economic and military “separation” from Washington.

Beijing is eager to draw the Philippines into its camp and has been intensifying its diplomacy in an escalating rivalry with Washington for regional influence and supremacy.

Duterte’s words do not only signal an official breaking of the ice between the two countries following the Hague court ruling that favoured Manila in its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea.

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They also break the diplomatic isolation facing Beijing, whose maritime claims have brought it into dispute with various other neighbours.

This could help to improve relations between China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). At least four of the group’s ten members are in territorial disputes with China.

Beijing hopes Manila can use its rotating chairmanship next year to cut the contentious issue from the group’s agenda.

Cutting the Philippines’ strategic and military ties with the United States would decrease Washington’s stake in the region, which would help China counter US President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” strategy.

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However, most observers are unconvinced about the apparent U-turn in the Philippines’ foreign policy, despite the duet sang by Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Duterte to hail the new relationship. Most analysts greeted Duterte’s words with scepticism, seeing them as an attempt to play off the two major powers in an effort to secure sorely needed economic aid from China. Indeed, Duterte returned from China with business deals worth US$17 billion.

Philippine politics suggests various reasons why such a policy shift is unlikely.

Firstly, the US-Philippines relationship has been strong for the nearly 70 years since they signed a mutual defence treaty. This alliance, which gives the US army access to five military bases in the Philippines, cannot just be eliminated by Duterte.

Secondly, while the significance of Chinese money and investment to the Philippines is increasing, trade with the US still plays a significant role in the Philippine economy.

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The US is the Philippines’ third-largest trading partner after Japan and China. As a former US colony, about four million US citizens are of Philippine ancestry and Filipino Americans accounted for roughly a third of the US$17.6 billion that Filipinos working overseas sent back to the country last year.

Thirdly, throughout Asia, the Filipinos are known to be overwhelmingly pro-American. Thus, under democracy, nearly all Filipino politicians have an instinctive allegiance to Washington. Revoking the US-Philippines alliance would alienate Philippine citizens and the military, which strongly favours Washington.

Duterte’s recent rhetoric does not change the fact that Philippine society remains very friendly towards the US. A recent opinion poll found 76 per cent trusted the US ‘very much’, but only 22 per cent said the same about China.

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Finally, Filipinos are also known for their patriotic passion. Duterte’s alignment to China does not mean the Philippines will give up its territorial claims in its dispute with China.

The effect of the July 12 ruling by the international tribunal in The Hague will be felt in years to come. And that ruling – which the court stated as final and binding – will stand in the way of the Philippines-China relationship, regardless of the rhetoric.

Cary Huang, a senior writer with the South China Morning Post, has been a senior editor and China affairs columnist since the early 1990s