Exclusive: Why 2016 Matters For The Philippines, China, And The United States

Since Benigno Aquino III was elected President in 2010, the Philippines shook off its label as the “sick man of Asia” and is expected to remain among East Asia’s fastest growing economies. A growing Philippines is welcomed in the region and is considered one of the few emerging economies which will emerge virtually unscathed from the Chinese economic slowdown.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino, Jr.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III

Despite his successes, however, Aquino’s presidency has faced mixed reception. In the midst of the Maguindanao massacre, the airport bullet scam, and the increase of Filipinos working overseas, much of the brunt of the criticism is placed on the present administration.

Even more so, the fact that Aquino, the son of the famed Filipino opposition leader Benigno Aquino, Jr. and former Philippine President Corazon Aquino, comes from one of the country’s political clans, serves as a reminder of the alleged oligarchy that controls the politics of the Philippines.

Also, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement made between the Philippines and the United States has raised alarm from leftists. The agreement was made in the midst of the South China Sea conflict, in which the Philippines is a littoral claimant, but remains controversial in the archipelago as it poses the possibility of the return of US bases in the country.

Today, six years after Aquino’s election and at the end of his term and on May 9, the Philippines will choose between an interesting cast of candidates. The candidates include:

Former Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas
Former Secretary of the Interior Mar Roxas

Mar Roxas: Roxas was a candidate for President in 2010, but opted to run as Aquino’s running mate instead. However, Roxas lost the Vice Presidential election to Jejomar Binay, as the President and the Vice President are elected separately in the Philippines. He later served a variety of cabinet positions under Aquino and is currently the current administration’s favorite in the election.

Vice President Jejomar Binay
Vice President Jejomar Binay

Jejomar Binay: Binay is Vice President of the Philippines and has been a strong critic of the current administration. For this reason, he is considered “leader of the opposition” of sorts. He is popular among leftists and has reached out to the impoverished vote. However, he has also received accusation of corruption during his time as Vice President and as Mayor of Makati, the Philippines largest financial center.

Senator Grace Poe
Senator Grace Poe

Grace Poe: Poe is a popular Senator in the Philippines. She is the daughter of movie star and former Presidential runner up Fernando Poe, Jr. She was asked to run as Mar Roxas’s running mate, but opted to run for President. However, she has been attacked by some who deem her ineligible for the office. The Philippine Constitution stipulates that a presidential candidate must be a “natural-born citizen” who has lived in the Philippines for at least 10 years before running. Poe is a natural-born Filipino, but has lived in the United States and may not meet the living in the Philippines for 10 years requirement. While election authorities have deemed Poe eligible, this has been met with mixed reception. Despite the issues with her eligibility, Poe has a slight lead over rivals in recent opinion polls. However, Duterte has inched ahead of Poe now and again.

Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte
Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte

Rodrigo Duterte: Duterte is the most colorful candidate by far. At first Duterte refused a presidential bid, however, the mayor of Davao City eventually decided to run, meeting excited reception and leading opinion polls until recently. Duterte presents himself as an outsider who has intrigued voters with his gruff image and profanity-laced speeches, even cursing out Pope Francis for the traffic caused by his visit to Davao City. Duterte has since apologized for his statements. Most controversial, Duterte has taken a very tough anti-crime stance which, while transforming his drug and crime infested city into one of the Philippines safest cities, also earned condemnation from groups like Human Rights Watch. This anti-crime stance has made Duterte incredibly popular in both his home city and nationwide and earned him the nicknames “the Punisher” and “Dirty Harry.” Some polls even have him leading over rival Grace Poe. However, Duterte has drawn the criticism of rights groups who accuse him of utilizing vigilante justice and has used “death squads” to kill suspected criminals. While Duterte has denied accusations of extra-judicial killings, rights groups are still concerned of Duterte’s promise to implement his anti-crime stance to the national level.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago
Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago

Miriam Defensor Santiago: Santiago is regarded as the most intellectual of the candidates. She is considered popular among younger voters and was runner-up in the 1992 presidential election. However, she has not done well in recent opinion polls and there are continual concerns about her health.

What About China?

While each candidate, each has their own differences in their domestic vision of the Philippines, with candidates Roxas and Poe believed to continue Aquino’s foreign policy and economic policies, especially in pursuing closer relations with the United States. Commentator Jeffrey Ordaniel has even argued that Poe, who once held dual US-Philippines citizenship, will be the least likely to pursue an anti-American foreign policy.

On the other hand, Binay and Duterte have shown to be more willing to pursue closer relations with China. Binay was quoted as saying “China has money, we need capital.” Binay has also called for a joint venture in developing natural resources with China in the South China Sea. Binay’s call for cooperation with China may slow down Philippines defense modernization and draw attention away from Philippine claims in the region. However, Joshua Kurlantzick argues that this position would likely “prod China to become even more assertive in contested waters.”

Duterte has stated that he would pursue cooperation with China rather than having the South China Sea dispute handled by international arbitration, a policy which the Aquino administration has pursued. Like Binay, Duterte is willing to undergo joint ventures with China in the region and would “shut up” about the dispute in exchange for China building vital transportation infrastructure in the Philippines.

However, Duterte has at other times reiterated his gruff exterior, claiming that he would travel to the disputed Islands via jet ski and plant the Filipino flag himself. Duterte’s China policy is confusing has he advocates both cooperation while still keeping his confrontational image against what he sees as an affront to Philippines sovereignty. Also, while he would likely remain tough on China, he is less likely to be as reliant on the US as past Philippine presidents and was once quoted as saying that “America would never die for us.”

Neither Duterte nor Binay, while supporting compromise with China about the territorial issue in the South China Sea and criticizing the EDCA with the United States, will seek to antagonize the United States.

While the repercussions of the presidential election in the Philippines next month is sure to indicate major changes in domestic policies, there is also much potential for major change in the South China Sea issue. While Poe and Roxas will probably extend Aquino era policies, including large economic growth and a tense situation with China, Duterte and Binay could push the Philippines into a much more cooperative relationship with China, which while being good for easing tensions between in the region, would lead to greater Philippine dependence on China.

Whoever wins the election, however, it is unlikely that the Philippines would choose China over the United States. Thus, the election should be in no way seen as the United States losing the Philippines to China, however, if Duterte or Binay become President, it will be interesting to see how they handle the South China Sea issue.



  • The U.S.-China Perception Monitor (中美印象) is an online publication that explores perception and misperception in U.S.-China relations through insightful commentaries, interviews with experts, and profiles on key figures in the bilateral relationship.