The South China Sea – or West Philippine Sea – dispute does not play as important of a role in the Philippine presidential election on May 9 as some analysts have suggested. Neither will the election transform the country’s policy towards China in the foreseeable term. Foreign policy and national security have never appeared to be strong vote earners in the Philippines where politics is driven by a few powerful families and well-connected elites.
Under President Benigno Aquino III, confrontations with China in the South China Sea have become of significant concern. The Philippines recently filed a case against China with the United Nations Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague, which raised the question of how the presidential candidates would approach the issue during the election campaign.
But does the South China Sea really matter in the 2016 election?
Among the four major contenders in the presidential race: Mar Roxas, Grace Poe, Rodrigo Duterte, and Jejomar Binay, none appear to have a clear and strong strategy in dealing with China’s maritime claims and activities in the South China Sea. No candidate has even stated how they would follow up on the PCA case against China.
Roxas, who lost as a vice presidential candidate in 2010 and is now Aquino’s choice, would likely pursue the same tough approach to the South China Sea as Aquino. This includes beefing up defence ties with not only the United States and Japan but also other countries in the region.
Senator Poe, who is an economic liberal but a neophyte on foreign policy, has not developed clearly how she would address the looming threat in the South China Sea and maintain economic ties with China.
The other two front-runners are even bigger wildcards. Binay, the current vice-president, has promised that he will prioritize strengthening economic ties with China while downplaying maritime disputes. Duterte, mayor of the city of Davao, essentially has no foreign policy experience and, like Binay, wants the Philippines to move closer to China by sharing natural resources in the sea. Thus marking a return to the policies of Aquino’s predecessor, Gloria Arroyo, and the “golden age” of bilateral relations between the Philippines and China.
Whoever wins in May, their policy towards the South China Sea issue will not be an element in their victory. Most Philippine politicians hail from elite families and the presendential election is an arena in which they compete for political influence with the wealthiest clans. According to a report from the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ), all presidential and vice-presidential candidates in the 2016 election spent PHP4.47 billion (US$96 million) by the end of March. Money is not only used to fuel campaigns but also to buy actual votes. A single vote can “cost” PHP1,500 according to PCIJ’s 2013 data. Therefore, the candidate who spends more will likely win regardless of their policies.
If surveys are reliable, Duterte who has an extensive link to the country’s elite, and Poe, who is the adopted daughter of the country’s two biggest film superstars, are topping the most recent polls and seemingly have spent the most amongst the candidates.
Furthermore, China does not play such an important role in the everyday lives of Filipinos to the extent that it could influence the people’s choice of leader. The anti-China sentiment among the Philippine people is not extremely high, much lower than its Southeast Asian neighbour Vietnam, which also has a tense relationship with China in the South China Sea. A survey by the Pew Research Center in September 2015 showed that 54 percent of Filipinos expressed a favourable opinion of China while only 19 percent of Vietnamese shared the same thought.
The political relationship between China and the Philippines may look tense over the South China Sea dispute but economically the two countries are still very close. Manila joined the Beijing-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in December last year and is expected to contribute nearly US$200 million to the bank’s coffers. With China being a crucial economic partner of the Philippines, the two countries’ relations is not as toxic as evaluated by several analysis and conflict with China in the South China Sea might not be the ultimate goal of the Philippines.
Thus, the South China Sea dispute is not a game changer in the May 9 presidential election. Will the next president be softer on China? Time may be on China’s side.
Nguyen Phuong Linh is a Southeast Asia political risk analyst based in Singapore and an Asia Pacific Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Linh has an MSc in Asian Politics from the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.