Philippines-China relations

TIMELINE: Philippines-China relations under Duterte

Frances Roberto
TIMELINE: Philippines-China relations under Duterte
(UPDATED) The Duterte administration lauds improving relations with China. Critics regret the government's inordinately forgiving foreign policy.

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – President Rodrigo Duterte’s warm sentiments toward China are no secret. Most recently, he hailed the benefits of the Philippines’ progressing relationship with the Asian neighbor during his 3rd State of the Nation Address (SONA).

“Re-energized” ties with the Asian giant, he said, has led to an “unprecedented level of cooperation” in the fight against drugs.

The recent developments are in contrast to the situation during the administration of Benigno Aquino III when the government pursued legal action over its maritime dispute with China. (TIMELINE: The Philippines-China maritime dispute)

Below is a timeline of events chronicling the “improving” relationships between the two countries.


June 30

Duterte is sworn into office. Prior to his induction, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua has visited Duterte twice – once in May, and again less than a month after. Zhao sees Duterte for the 3rd time 5 days before the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) releases the ruling on the PH-China maritime dispute.

July 12

The Philippines wins its landmark victory against China 3 years after former president Benigno Aquino III filed the arbitration case with The Hague in 2013.

October 18-21

Duterte goes to China for a 4-day state visit, making headlines after Duterte announces on October 20 a “military and economic split” from the United States. The government secures billions worth of deals with China, including business-to-business contracts, public financing agreements, and soft loans for development projects. 

Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping also agree to pursue bilateral talks on the issue of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). In addition, the two leaders sign off on 13 bilateral cooperation agreements. (READ: What Duterte accomplished in China)

November 2

Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative releases images taken at Scarborough Shoal that contradict then presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella’s statement that Filipino fishing boats are “no longer being intercepted.” The photos suggest Chinese blockades continue to restrict access to the shoal, with a China Coast Guard (CCG) craft “anchored just inside the mouth of the lagoon.”

The center also receives information from the Philippine Navy that 3 other CCG vessels patrol around Scarborough. This comes after the CCG allegedly harassed Filipino fishermen in Scarborough Shoal two months prior.


May 14-15

Duterte joins 27 other government leaders in Beijing for a forum on China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a proposed trade and infrastructure network connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe. (FAST FACTS: China’s Belt and Road Initiative)

Duterte also meets with Xi. Apart from signing 3 non-binding memoranda of understanding (MOUs), they finalize an agreement granting the Philippines P3.6 billion and P360 million for the construction of two bridges over Pasig River and drug rehabilitation centers in Mindanao, respectively.

March 24

Reuters publishes a report citing data showing China’s construction on disputed waters. Later on, Duterte says he is helpless to stop China from building on Scarborough lest he sparks a “losing war” against them. (READ: 5 ways Duterte can defend Scarborough without going to war)

November 12-16

China Premier Li Keqiang visits the Philippines, becoming the first Chinese premier to do so in 10 years. During his trip, Li signs 14 deals with Duterte, including the 2017 Renminbi Bond Issuance Underwriting Agreement and an additional P1.1 billion donation for the rehabilitation of Marawi.


January 24 

The permit granted by Malacañang to China to conduct research in the eastern seaboard of the Philippines (which includes the Benham Rise) begins. Filipinos, Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque says, can’t study the region without China’s help. (READ: PH researchers explore Benham Rise)

On why China has been allowed to scope out the area, and not other countries also capable of funding research, Roque says only China qualified for authorization, whose terms and conditions have been violated.

February 5

The Philippine Daily Inquirer publishes exclusive photos revealing China has continued reclamation activities in the West Philippine Sea. Islands artificially constructed over 7 reefs in the Spratlys archipelago now host Chinese air bases, naval facilities, and radar and communications systems. 

Roque has admitted knowledge of these activities, but is untroubled by them. He cites a promise made by Beijing that it will not conduct reclamation of any other feature in the West Philippine Sea. (READ: Malacañang on China buildup on PH reef: What do you want us to do?

February 15

Roque says the administration attributes “no bad faith“ to China for naming features in the Benham Rise, but hopes they will “understand” that the Philippines does not recognize the Chinese titles and will ascribe Philippine names.

In stark contrast to his stance on other maritime issues, Duterte says he would “go to war” to defend the Philippine Rise. Before this, the President had said he was wary of pressing the topic of the West Philippine Sea, insisting that he had no other choice but to stay on China’s good side and avoid conflict.

April 9-10

Duterte flies to China for the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) and witnesses the signing of documents. Before his departure, Duterte expresses the need for China’s assistance in key infrastructure program “Build, Build, Build” and in the Marawi rehabilitation. 

I need China. I will not say something which is not good,” he says.

Asked about reclamation activities reported back in February, Duterte says he will continue to rely on China’s “word of honor” and is confident that they will not default on it.

April 26

Duterte proposes a “60-40” proceeds distribution with China on joint exploration of the West Philippine Sea, amid fervent criticism that sharing the region would effectively negate the Philippines’ milestone win in the Hague and violate the Philippine Constitution. (READ: Joint development in EEZ ‘prohibited’ – Carpio)

His administration previously expressed its desire to pursue joint gas and oil exploration, citing the 2005 Joint Seismic Marine Undertaking between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam as “precedent.” The JMSU, however, was challenged in 2008 and remains an open case in the Supreme Court.

May 11

A Chinese navy chopper harrasses a Philippine Navy rubber boat conducting resupplying efforts at Ayungin Shoal. According to Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano, a chopper of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) encroached upon the rubber boat and was “so close that seawater splash entered” the vessel.

Asked about the issue, Cayetano believes it is not a form of “harassment,” but rather an “incident.” Nevertheless, he says a diplomatic protest has been filed.

May 19

People’s Daily, a state-run newspaper in China, uploads a video to Twitter, showing several Chinese bombers landing and taking off from Woody Island. The island reef is part of the Paracel Islands and is known to be China’s largest base in the South China Sea. 

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) reports that “nearly all of the Philippines falls within the radius of the bombers, including Manila and all 5 Philippine military bases earmarked for development under the US-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement.”

May 21

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) breaks its two-day silence on the issue, saying that while it is “taking the appropriate diplomatic action necessary” and will bring up the subject in next talks, it is not its policy to “publicize every action” it takes.

The administration maintained a similar position when US network CNBC reported earlier in May that Beijing had installed missiles in Spratlys. Malacañang, while concerned about the matter, was “confident” that the missiles were not directed at the Philippines.

May 26

After a whirlwind month of incidents in the West Philippine Sea – and amid criticism of a weak and compliant stance toward China – the Philippines silently files a note verbale.

June 8

GMA News obtains footage of the China Coast Guard (CCG) taking the catch of Filipino fishermen.

Fisherman Roseller Latagen says that the CCG would take as much as P3,000 worth of their catch, only occasionally giving something in return. When they do, the CCG typically compensate with two small bottles of mineral water, some cigarettes, or packs of noodles.

Otherwise, they take “whatever they want,” often nabbing the best ones, the fisherman says.

In the face of fierce condemnation of the incident, Duterte describes what happened as unbalanced “barter” trade. 

July 12

On the second anniversary of the Hague ruling, photos of tarpaulins that read, “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China,” go viral in social media. Strung across several footbridges around Metro Manila, the banners have been labeled by officials to be “the work of government enemies.”

The posters are said to parody a suggestion jokingly made Duterte in February for China to make the Philippines its province. Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jinhua has slammed the tarpaulins, saying the Philippines has never been part of China.

July 14

A Social Weather Stations survey finds that 4 out of 5 Filipinos say it is wrong for the Duterte administration to do nothing about China’s militarization of the West Philippine Sea.

July 16

Chinese research vessel Yuan Wang 3 docks in Davao City – Duterte’s hometown – from the port of Jiangyin. The vessel is used for tracking and support of satellite and intercontinental ballistic missiles, but it is not clear if the vessel is attached to a civilian agency or to the military. 

The Philippine Navy says the visit is “routine” and “nothing unusual.”

July 17

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua denies that China is putting the Philippines into a “debt trap” by giving it grants and loans, adding that Duterte’s economic team “is smart enough.” 

Duterte, meanwhile, says China has never asked for any piece of real estate in the Philippines in exchange for financial assistance.

July 23 

During his 3rd State of the Nation Address, Duterte vows to defend the West Philippine Sea amid “reenergized relations with China.” 

“Our improved relationship with China, however, does not mean that we will waver in our commitment to defend our interests in the West Philippine Sea,” the President says.

August 3

President Rodrigo Duterte attends the inauguration of a P500-million drug rehabilitation center in Malaybalay, Bukidnon, a donation from a group of Chinese businessmen.

August 14

President Duterte urges China to “temper” its frequent warnings to planes and ships passing over or through the West Philippine Sea. He says he does not want to quarrel with China.

October 6

The Chinese embassy in Manila says it has given Davao City 13 schoolbuildings. Then Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua says the schoolbuildings were meant to help Davao students, and to thank President Duterte for his policy on China. 

November 14

President Duterte makes it clear that he thinks the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea is a a way for China to tell Southeast Asian countries how to behave in order to avoid conflict in the contested waters.

November 19

Rappler learns that select Philippine officials have been exchanging drafts of a proposed framework agreement regarding joint exploration in the South China Sea for oil and natural gas, ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the country.

November 20

A Social Weather Stations survey shows that most Filipinos continue to distrust China despite the Duterte administartion’s friendly ties with the country.

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the Philippines for a state visit. In a joint press conference, he and Duterte say they decided to “elevate” their countries’ ties into a “comprehensive strategic cooperation” even as they “continue to manage contentious issues” in the West Philippine Sea.

November 21

Vice President Leni Robredo reminds the Philippine government that it must continue to assert its sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea despite signing 29 agreements with China.


March 15

Former Philippine foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, former ombudsman Conchita Carpio Morales, and a group of fishermen files a communication before the International Criminal Court, accusing Chinese President Xi Jinping of crimes against humanity over environmental damage in the South China Sea. 

March 21

President Duterte says the move by Del Rosario and Morales against China will not jeopardize the Philippines’ relations with the Asian giant.

March 27

President Duterte tells Song Tao, head of the International Department of the Central Committee of China’s Communist Party, that he had nothing to do with the complaint filed before the ICC. He says that “we cannot stop people from just filing cases.” 

April 11

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lu Kang says the Spratlys, which the Chinese call Nansha Islands “are China’s territory, adding that their claim “is backed by sufficient historical and jurisprudential evidence.”

April 12

Malacañang reminds China of the historic Hague ruling in his response to the claim of China’s foreign ministry.

April 15

Social Weather Stations survey shows that only two in 10 Filipinos believe that China has good intentions for the Philippines.

April 25

President Duterte meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping ahead of the Belt and Road Forum in China. He encourages China and the Philippines to continue to “explore new areas of cooperation and partership” and to fast-track the implementation of agreements signed during Xi’s visit in November 2018.

Then spokesperson Salvador Panelo says that Xi and Duterte agreed to tackle the presence of Chinese ships near Pag-asa Island “can be managed by the mechanism of bilateral negotiations.”

May 31 

While clarifying that he loves China, Duterte questions the Asian giant’s claim to the entire South China Sea. He says that it “it behooves upon us to ask, is it right for a country to claim the whole ocean?”

June 9 

Chinese ship Yuemaobinyu 42212 rams the back of Filipino fishing boat Gem-Ver. causing a hole that causes the boat to sink from the rear. Instead of helping, the Chinese vessel turns off its lights and speeds off, leaving 22 Filipino fishermen.

June 12 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana announces a “collision” near Recto Bank. He condemns the Chinese fishing vessel for abandoning the 22 Filipino fishermen.


The incident begins a long series of flip-flopping of government officials all while the fishermen struggled to get compensated. (TIMELINE: Sinking of Filipino boat in West PH Sea by Chinese ship)

June 22

Malacañang says President Duterte has agreed to a joint Philippines-China investigation into the Recto Bank incident, despite opposition from various government officials and critics. (READ: Duterte vs fishermen: Is the Philippines lawyering for China?

July 1

Malacañang says China has rejected President Rodrigo Duterte’s suggestion of involving a “neutral” third party in the Philippines-China joint investigation.

July 2

Panelo says that President Duterte “wanted China’s assurance that the rights and safety of our fisherfolks are guaranteed.”

July 22

President Duterte uses his State of the Nation Address to justify his purported “fishing deal” with China. He says his administration is doing a “delicate balancing act” for the sake of “avoidance of conflict” with China.

July 25

Defense Secretary Lorenzana confirms that several Chinese warships sailed through the Sibutu Strait in Tawi-Tawi 4 times since February without informing Philippine authorities.

July 29

China’s ambassador to Manila Zhao Jianhua says Beijing would “not take the first shot. He appeals to claimant countries to “be patient” when settling disputes.

July 30

Lorenzana criticizes China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea, adding that “the way they took over Scarborough Shoal, to me that was bullying.”

July 31

Foreign Secretary Locsin says that the Philippines has filed a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of Chinese vessels near Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea.

August 1

The Department of National Defense says “the Chinese presence in the West Philippine Sea is akin to somebody squatting on a piece of land owned by someone else.”

August 5

President Duterte agrees to end the implementation of a 7-year policy of the government not to stamp Philippine visas on Chinese passports in protest of the image of the 9-dash Line featured on their pages.

August 6

Presidential Spokesperson Panelo says Duterte plans to finally “invoke” the Hague ruling against China’s claim to the West Philippine Sea during his upcoming China visit.

August 9

Locsin tweets that the Philippines filed another diplomatic protest against China over the presence of Chinese survey ships and warships in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

August 19

Locsin orders the filing of another diplomatic protest against China over the passage of its warships in Philippine waters.

August 28

The owner of the Chinese ship involved in the sinking of a Filipino fishing boat in the West Philippine Sea apologized to the fishermen.

August 29

Duterte, in a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, says the ties between China and the Philippines can only get stronger despite recent “challenges.”

August 29

Malacañang says Xi reiterated China’s refusal to recognize the Hague ruling.

The Philippines and China also form the groups that will finalize agreements on joint oil and gas exploration in specific areas in the West Philippine Sea.

August 30

Duterte relays to Xi his “deep concern” over several cases of Chinese Naval vessels and survey ships intrusions.

September 4

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr says the Duterte administration has so far filed “more or less 60” diplomatic protests against China since 2016.

Lorenzana says Chinese President Xi Jinping cited international law when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte brought up warship incursions in August and that the law “does not require ships passing through territorial waters of another country.”

Duterte admits he knew that raising the Hague ruling with Xi was futile.

September 10

Duterte says the Philippines and China are “ignoring” the Hague ruling in order to push through with joint oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea.

September 12

Vice President Leni Robredo says that “selling that future for a gas deal with China is a shameful way of abandoning that responsibility.”

September 13

DND says in a report that “China has been utilizing fishing vessels to discreetly conduct surveillance, search and rescue operations as well as provide possible assistance to [Chinese] law enforcement agencies.”

September 20

Malacañang says raising the Hague ruling before the United Nations General Assembly “may only have an adverse effect on our continuing diplomatic and friendly talks on the issue.”

October 2

Locsin orders the filing of a diplomatic protest against China over the presence of its vessels near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea.

October 22

Chinese Vice Premier Hu Chunhua arrives in the Philippines for an official visit. He is the latest high-level Chinese official to visit Manila under the Duterte administration.

October 28

The Philippines and China officially convene the intergovernmental joint steering committee on oil and gas exploration.

October 29

The Department of Foreign Affairs announces that the Philippines and China are eyeing possible cooperation in the areas of maritime research, protection, and fisheries cooperation in the West Philippine Sea. 

October 30

Ship captain Manolo Ebora tells Rappler that a Chinese vessel that introduced itself as a “naval warship” harassed a Filipino-crewed commercial ship near Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea on September 30.

November 2 

DFA says it is verifying the report that a Chinese vessel harassed a Filipino-crewed ship.

Lorenzana commends Ebora for handling the situation well. 

November 3

Lorenzana calls on China to respect international maritime law. 

Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo, however, says that the reported harassment  by a “Chinese warship” in the West Philippine Sea is not the country’s concern because “it’s not a Philippine vessel.”

November 4

Locsin refuses to call out China over its harassment of a Filipino-crewed commercial ship because doing so would compromise the employment of thousands of seafarers.

November 29

Duterte promises to “quarrel” with China if it does interfere with the electricity system of the Philippines, but clarifies this move by the Asian giant is unlikely to happen.

December 3

Huang Xilian, China’s new ambassador to Manila, arrives in the Philippines.


January 14

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) welcomes China Coast Guard (CCG) officials into the country, kicking off days of “historic” talks and exercises. 

PCG chief Admiral Joel Garcia says talking with the Chinese government is the only solution to years of dispute in and over the West Philippine Sea. 

January 24

In an interview with Russian news outlet RT News, Duterte says it is best to “let time heal” the West Philippine Sea dispute with China. 

February 3 

Duterte rejects calls for the Philippine government to prohibit all Chinese from entering the country amid the global spread of the 2019 novel coronaviru, saying that it “is an utter disrespect to a human being.”

February 17

Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian says Duterte wrote a letter to Chinese President Xi Jinping expressing his support for China amid the coronavirus pandemic.

March 2

The Armed Forces of the Philippines says more than 100 Chinese vessels were seen near Pag-asa (Thitu) Island in the West Philippine Sea in January and February 2020.

March 20

Chinese state-run Xinhua news agency reports that China has opened two new research outposts in the West Philippine Sea. 

March 30

Philippine health officials requests China to send experts who can share technical advice on “epidemic prevention” and their experience in treating coronavirus patients.

April 2

The Chinese embassy in the Philippines announces that a 12-man team of Chinese doctors and experts has been selected to help the Philippines in its coronavirus response.

April 8

Department of Foreign Affairs expresses “deep concern” over the recent sinking of a Vietnamese fishing boat by a Chinese vessel in the South China Sea.

In a televised briefing, Duterte thanks Chinese President Xi Jinping for his note expressing support for the Philippines. He also says Xi asked him to “counter the malign that they were suffering at early at this stage.”

April 22

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr says the Philippines lodged two formal protests against China over the recent pointing of a radar gun at a Philippine Navy ship, as well as its declaration that portions of Philippine territory were part of Hainan province.

April 23

The Armed Forces of the Philippines says a Chinese warship targeted a Philippine Navy vessel on patrol in the West Philippine Sea. 

April 24

The China embassy releases “Iisang Dagat (One Sea)” – a song in Mandarin and Filipino that highlights the partnership between China and the Philippines during the coronavirus pandemic.

April 30

The Department of Foreign Affairs launches a strong protest against China after it recently named districts and maritime features in the West Philippine Sea.

June 11 

Chinese President Xi Jinping assures President Duterte that the Philippines would be a priority if China develops a vaccine against COVID-19.

June 22

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr promises to raise with the Chinese government the Chinese ship owner’s earlier offer to compensate the 22 Filipino fishermen and owners of Gem-Ver.

June 25

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana says China’s reported plan to establish an air defense identification zone over the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, violates the rules-based order.

He says that it is his “fervent hope that China would not proceed with this planned action for the continued peace and stability in the entire South China Sea.”

June 25

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr issues a stern warning against China to stop its People’s Liberation Army Navy from conducting military drills in Philippine territory. He says that continuing to do so will be met with the “severest response.”

Frances Roberto is an incoming freshman at the Ateneo de Manila University. She is a Rappler intern.

Featured photo: President Rodrigo Duterte shakes the hand of Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in China in May 2017. Malacañang photo


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