President Duterte campaigned with the slogan of “Change is Coming!” and a key area where this has been prominently noticeable is in foreign policy. The “pivot to China” has been seen as a sea-change in how the Philippines approaches its foreign relationships. From a focus on being a key non-NATO ally of the United States to the new country coordinator for ASEAN-China bilateral relations seems to be a complete turn-around. In reality, Philippine relations with the US remain fundamentally the same. For all the criticism (to say the least) that President Duterte has heaped on the US, the institutionalized linkages that have made it the key strategic partner of the Philippines in its international relations remain unchanged.
There is more than something, however, to the idea of change in Philippine-China relations with the turn-around happening in such a short time. Seen from a historical perspective, the relationship between the two countries has been steadily improving since the establishment of diplomatic ties between the Republic of the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China in 1975. The tendency to see the Duterte Administration’s “pivot to China” as a major shift in Philippine foreign policy is only in the context of conditions, albeit important and intense conditions, in the last 10 years regarding the West Philippine Sea. To be sure, developments regarding the disputing claims to land features (and even the waters themselves on the part of China) located there had spilled over into different aspects of the bilateral relationship between the two countries. And there were even concerns over how this might blow into a conflict involving the two great powers in the region—the US and China. Given historic trends, however, it is probably more accurate to characterize the Duterte administration’s approach as a normalization of the bilateral relations rather than a “shift.”