Filipinos favour US over China, but gap narrowing

Filipinos still favour the United States over China, but the gap is narrowing, with President Rodrigo Duterte rallying public support for his alliance-shaking pivot towards Beijing, a US-based think-tank has reported.

A negative view of President Donald Trump is also eroding "positive feeling" in the Philippines towards the US.

"While Trump's first months in office have had a major impact on worldwide perceptions of the US, people in the Philippines still like the US and have confidence in its leader. But Filipinos also share positive views of China and its leader, President Xi Jinping.

"Overall, the perception gap between the US and China in the Philippines is narrowing," the Pew Research Centre said in a report it released yesterday.

Roughly four in five Filipinos still favour the US, but that percentage is far below the Obama-era high of 92 per cent posted in 2015.

China's "favourable view" rating, meanwhile, inched up from 54 per cent to 55 per cent. These numbers are in line with how Filipinos view the leaders of these two nations.

Only 69 per cent believe Mr Trump will "do the right thing regarding world affairs". That compares with 94 per cent when Mr Barack Obama was president.

Mr Xi, on the other hand, had a 53 per cent approval rating, up from 51 per cent.

Mr Duterte has upended the foreign policy pursued by his predecessor, Mr Benigno Aquino, since he took office in June last year.

Ties between Manila and Beijing plunged to new lows under Mr Aquino, after Manila in 2013 lodged a case before an international tribunal challenging Beijing's vast claims to the South China Sea.

The Philippines won the case in July last year. But by then, Mr Duterte had already succeeded Mr Aquino. Instead of pressing on with the victory, he set it aside as he aggressively courted China.

Mr Duterte also launched a nearly daily barrage of verbal attacks against the US over sharp criticisms from Washington of his deadly war on drugs.

He threatened to roll back the Philippines' 65-year alliance with the US, telling Americans in a state visit to Beijing last October that it was "time to say goodbye".

China reciprocated by pledging billions to fund the Philippines' infrastructure-building programme and backing Mr Duterte's anti- crime drive.

Filipinos, however, still support the US' military presence in the region, and most believe the US will come to their nation's aid in a conflict with China.

Notably, though, only 28 per cent now say being tough with China over the South China Sea is vital.

Sixty-seven per cent believe it is now more important to pursue a strong economic relationship with China.

"This represents a dramatic shift since this question was last asked in 2015; at that time, Filipinos were almost evenly divided between forging a strong economic relationship with China (43 per cent) and being tough on territorial disputes (41 per cent)," said the Pew Centre report.

Raul Dancel

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2017, with the headline 'Filipinos favour US over China, but gap narrowing'. Print Edition | Subscribe