On 45th year of diplomatic ties, PH shows complicated relationship with China

Sofia Tomacruz

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On 45th year of diplomatic ties, PH shows complicated relationship with China

Malacañang Photo

On the 45th anniversary of Philippines-China relations, the Duterte government says one thing and does another

MANILA, Philippines – Marking 45 years of diplomatic relations with China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte vowed to further boost “special ties” between Manila and Beijing.  

Duterte, whose “independent” foreign policy ushered in what is considered as the golden age of Philippines-China ties, assured Chinese President Xi Jinping of this commitment in a letter dated June 9, and shared with media on Wednesday, June 10.

He trumpeted China as a “close neighbor and valued friend.” 

“As we look ahead to the golden jubilee of our diplomatic ties, I assure Your Excellency (Xi) of our firm commitment to preserve and build on the gains of our close partnership for greater peace, progress, and prosperity for our nations,” Duterte said. 

Like Duterte, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr hailed the “natural friendship and centuries-old goodwill” between the Philippines and China in a letter to Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. 

“It pleases us that, in the decades since, our relations have thrived, marked by maturing political, economic, and functional engagement bilaterally and within larger frameworks,” Locsin said. 

But on the ground, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and top military officials visited Pag-asa island on June 9, to unveil the new beaching ramp that took two and a half years to complete. Pag-asa is the Philippines’ main outpost in the West Philippine Sea. 

The defense chief called the occasion a “historic milestone” in Philippine efforts to take possession of its islets in the West Philippine Sea.

Asked if the construction on Pag-asa Island could rock the boat with China, Lorenzana told reporters: “Not really, because we’ve been here a long time. I kept emphasizing to the previous ambassador of China that we have been here since, in fact, the late 1960s.” 

The June 9 visit was the second trip to Pag-asa for Lorenzana, who is the first defense secretary to visit the island in recent memory. 

DEFENSE OFFICIALS. Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana leads the inauguration of the new beaching ramp at Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea. Photo courtesy of the Department of National Defense

Split message? Duterte’s high regard for ties with Xi and China comes against the backdrop of increased tensions in the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, and as countries continue to battle the coronavirus pandemic. 

Under these world challenges to “security and stability and the rule of law,” Duterte said further strengthening relations between the Philippines and China “takes on even greater significance.” 

“We must forge on and ensure that the potential of our special ties is fully realized,” Duterte said. 

Xi, meanwhile, highlighted his regard for the “great importance to the development of China-Philippines ties” in a message to Duterte, reported Chinese state media Xinhua


The June 9 milestone marked 4 and a half decades after then-Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and then Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai signed a joint communiqué to establish Philippine-China relations on June 9, 1975.

Duterte referred to this communiqué, saying “these same sacrosanct principles for peaceful co-existence and mutually beneficial cooperation will remain our lodestar as we continue to work together under our Comprehensive Strategic Cooperation.”

Locsin echoed Duterte as he expressed confidence the Philippines and China “in the coming years will…continue to grow in friendship, bridging gaps, cooperating for mutual benefit and prospering in tandem, ever true to the principle enshrined in the joint communique that to this day underpins our relationship.” 


In a separate message marking the milestone, Locsin likewise said that between the Philippines and China, “the feeling of warm friendship has not cooled, let alone been lost, not even in our differences.” 

“Truly, Dōng Fāng Hóng – the East is red with warmth of Filipino-Chinese friendship,” he said. 

Prior to Duterte’s presidency, relations between Manila and Beijing hit its lowest point as then President Benigno Aquino III took China to an international arbitral tribunal over its aggression in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines won the case but Duterte has refused to enforce it, fearing repercussions from China.

The bitter dispute is still a major issue for the two countries, though Duterte has since downplayed this in exchange for economic benefits from China.  (READ: ‘Total disarray’: Carpio slams Duterte gov’t West Philippine Sea strategy) – Rappler.com

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Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers defense and foreign affairs. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz.