OPINION: Why is the Philippines pivoting towards China?

Foreign Affairs Society

Uriel N. Galace explores two potentially overlooked dimensions to the Duterte administration's foreign policy shift toward China.

By Uriel N. Galace

Uriel Galace is a Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, a think tank housed in the Republic of the Philippines's Department of Foreign Affairs. The views reflected in this article are those of the author alone and do not represent those of the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.


In October 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Beijing for an official state visit and received a red carpet welcome from President Xi Jingping, complete with full military honors and a 21-gun salute.1 A welcoming ceremony was held where the two presidents were cheered by young Chinese students holding flowers and Chinese and Philippine flags.2 Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin announced that the trip had signified the “full recovery”3 of China’s bilateral relationship with the Philippines.

Outside observers closely following developments in East Asia have in turns expressed amazement and bewilderment at Duterte’s pivot to China. Some have questioned Duterte’s judgment and accused him of playing a “dangerous game in the South China Sea”4 while others have praised him as the “perfect statesman”5 who knows how to deftly wield diplomatic tactics. Yet, what all of these analyses have in common is a single-minded focus on the geopolitical and strategic reasons for Duterte’s shift in policy.

Here, an alternative viewpoint will be advanced: that Duterte’s pivot towards China was not motivated merely by geostrategic considerations, but also by two oft-overlooked factors that could have proven influential in his decision-making process: the influence of the Philippine business establishment and Duterte’s ethnic Chinese background.

The influence of Chinese-Filipino businessmen

One noteworthy but overlooked detail in Duterte’s trip to Beijing last year was his entourage. As many as 400 businessmen signed up6 to join the president’s trip, many of them comprising the Philippines’s business elite. Tycoons Ramon S. Ang of the San Miguel group, Lucio Tan and son Michael Tan of the Lucio Tan group, Hans Sy of the SM group, Carlos Chan of the Oishi group, Alfredo Yao of the Zest-O group, and Henry Lim Bon Liong of the Sterling Group of companies were only some of the high-profile names in attendance during Duterte’s trip to Beijing.

What immediately stands out from this list is that all of these Filipino businessmen are of Chinese descent, some of whom were either born in China or had moved to the Philippines at a very young age. This is hardly surprising considering the Philippines’s business community is overwhelmingly dominated by ethnic Chinese. In fact, some scholars have estimated that the ethnic Chinese minority in the Philippines control 60% of the country’s private economy despite comprising only 1% of its population.7 A cursory glance at Forbes’s list of Filipino billionaires8 seems to confirm this assertion: 20 of the 30 richest Filipinos are of Chinese descent.

Neither was Duterte’s business entourage in Beijing limited to just Forbes billionaires. Over a hundred officers and members of the Filipino-Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry also accompanied the President.9 In fact, Duterte has made regular trips to the Filipino-Chinese Chamber of Commerce and Industry10—both before and after his election—giving various speeches, soliciting campaign contributions, and generally receiving an outpouring of support.11

Because of their wide economic clout, it is possible that these same Chinese-Filipino businessmen could wield some influence over Duterte’s China policy. Duterte’s campaign received several million-peso donations from wealthy Chinese-Filipino businessmen12, comprising a big chunk of his total campaign contributions. Furthermore, Chinese businessmen have been the most successful group at securing personal appointments with the President in Malacañang.13 Although this in itself does not prove that these businessmen were singularly responsible for Duterte’s shift in foreign policy strategy, it does demonstrate that they have the President’s ear.

Of course, many Chinese-Filipinos—like the rest of the Philippine population at large—hold unfavorable views towards China because of the latter’s aggression in the South China Sea. This is especially true of the younger populations who were born and raised in the country and have expressed unwavering loyalty to the Philippines. Nevertheless, the Chinese-Filipino business establishment maintains a strong economic interest in ensuring friendly relations between the Philippines and China. For instance, the SM Group has invested PHP 15B to develop numerous shopping malls in China, including in Xiamen and Jinjiang, two cities located in Fujian province, the ancestral homeland of many contemporary Chinese-Filipinos.14 Moreover, many of these businessmen leverage their connections in China and its constituent territories to sell Chinese-made goods in the Philippines or to export Philippine raw materials to China. As such, the viability of their business model is in part contingent on a robust relationship between the Philippines and China. Absent such stability, their businesses would languish.

By reviving relations with China, the Philippines has managed to secure $24B worth of investment pledges15, to relax tariff barriers on Philippine exports to China, and even to promote tourism in the Philippines via the lifting of a travel advisory for Manila-bound Chinese tourists. For the Duterte administration, such developments surely constitute a win for both the Philippine economy and the Chinese-Filipino elite who control much of private industry in the country.

Duterte’s Chinese heritage 

Another potentially significant but often overlooked rationale to Duterte’s pivot to China is his ethnic Chinese background. Duterte’s maternal grandfather was Chinese, an immigrant from Xiamen, Fujian Province, with the surname of Lam, making his bloodline about one-quarter Chinese. This is a fact that Duterte took great pains to emphasize during his trip to China last year. “I am Chinese,” he declared in an interview broadcast on China Central Television during his trip, thereby showcasing his shared ancestral heritage with the Chinese people.16 This, of course, is a highly effective diplomatic tool, regardless of how sincerely or deeply Duterte feels that affinity. Regardless, during multiple interviews, he has repeatedly heaped praise on China, telling China’s Xinhua news agency that the Philippines is on the “best level of friendship with China”17 and thanking President Xi for “loving the Philippines.”18

Duterte, in addition to being President of the Philippines, seems to strongly identify with his ethnic Chinese heritage. In his October 2016 speech in China, he emphasized the shared “Oriental” ancestry of Filipinos and Chinese, to loud applause.19 This is a theme that he has repeated in other speeches, demonstrating how deeply he has imbibed his Asian lineage.20 As such, he may have a sincere interest in maintaining amicable relations between the two countries that collectively comprise his personal identity.


Arguably, two overlooked but potentially compelling reasons behind the Philippines’ change in policy could be the robust influence wielded by elite Chinese-Filipino businessmen over Duterte and Duterte’s own potentially personal affinity for China by virtue of his ethnic Chinese heritage.

This essay does not seek to argue that these variables are the only—or even the most significant—reasons for Duterte’s shift in foreign policy strategy. Foreign policymaking is an inherently messy process that takes into account numerous considerations. Nevertheless, it does serve to highlight the importance of these factors and suggest that they may have played an influential role in his decision-making.



Mollman, S. (2016). "Foul-mouthed Duterte demonstrated in Beijing he can be the perfect statesman (when he wants to be)." Retrieved from https://qz.com/815913/philippine-leader-duterte-demonstrated-in-beijing-he-can-be-the-perfect-statesman/


Ranada, P. (2016). "Duterte visit marks ‘full recovery’ of PH-China ties." Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/149830-duterte-state-visit-full-recovery-philippines-china-relations




Robles, R. (2017). "Duterte plays a dangerous game in South China Sea." Retrieved from http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/geopolitics/article/2073858/duterte-plays-dangerous-game-south-china-sea


Mollman, S. (2016). "Foul-mouthed Duterte demonstrated in Beijing he can be the perfect statesman (when he wants to be)." Retrieved from https://qz.com/815913/philippine-leader-duterte-demonstrated-in-beijing-he-can-be-the-perfect-statesman/


Dumlao-Abadilla, & Cabacungan. (2016). "Big business group to join Duterte in China." Retrieved from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/824775/big-business-group-to-join-duterte-in-china


Chua, A. (2004). World on fire. New York: Anchor Books.


Forbes. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/philippines-billionaires/list/#tab:overall


Dumlao-Abadilla, & Cabacungan. (2016). "Big business group to join Duterte in China." Retrieved from http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/824775/big-business-group-to-join-duterte-in-china


Ho, A. (2017). "Duterte, Fil-Chinese: Business in PH doing well despite politics." Retrieved from http://cnnphilippines.com/news/2017/03/25/Fil-Chinese-group-PH-business-doing-well.html


Ranada, P. (2016). "Fil-Chinese businessmen welcome Duterte’s peace, order agenda." Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/politics/elections/2016/119734-filipino-chinese-businessmen-duterte-peace-order


Ilagan, & Manghas. (2016). "PCIJ Special Report: P334M from only 13 donors funded Duterte's presidency." Retrieved from http://www.gmanetwork.com/news/news/specialreports/591235/p334m-from-only-13-donors-funded-duterte-s-presidency/story/


Ranada, P. (2018). "Chinese businessmen flock to Duterte's Malacañang." Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/newsbreak/in-depth/203898-duterte-chinese-businessmen-meetings-malacanang


Austria. (2015). "SM investing P15b in China." Retrieved from http://sminvestments.com/sm-investing-p15b-china


Calonzo, A., & Yap, C. (2016). "China Visit Helps Duterte Reap Funding Deals Worth $24 Billion." Retrieved from https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2016-10-21/china-visit-helps-duterte-reap-funding-deals-worth-24-billion


Huang, E. (2016). "'I am Chinese': Rodrigo Duterte explained the Philippines’ shift in the South China Sea to China’s CCTV." Retrieved from https://qz.com/813171/i-am-chinese-president-rodrigo-duterte-explained-the-philippines-shift-in-the-south-china-sea-to-chinas-cctv/


Xinhua. (2017). "Duterte says Philippines on 'best level of friendship' with China." Retrieved from http://news.xinhuanet.com/english/2017-03/29/c_136168744.htm


Ranada, P. (2017). "Duterte thanks China's Xi Jinping for 'loving' PH." Retrieved from http://www.rappler.com/nation/163657-duterte-thanks-china-xi-jinping-loving-philippines


Ranada, P. (2016). "Duterte tells Chinese: Americans are ‘loud, discourteous.’" Retrieved from https://www.rappler.com/nation/149821-duterte-chinese-americans-loud-discourteous


MindaNews. (2018). "DUTERTE TRANSCRIPTS: Chinese-Filipino Business Club." Retrieved from http://www.mindanews.com/duterte-files/2018/02/duterte-transcripts-chinese-filipino-business-club-19-feb-2018/





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