Rodrigo Duterte is an enigma.

Duterte is hugely popular. Ordinary Filipinos love his down-to-earth and folksy character but they never embraced his foreign policies.

In the last four years, Duterte desperately tried to bring his government close to China while distancing from the United States, a clear sign of the country’s tectonic shift in foreign policy.

On the 45th anniversary of the two countries’ diplomatic ties early this month, Duterte heaped praises on Xi Jinping. He was the only leader who expressed support for China as other world leaders condemned Beijing’s move to impose tight security laws on Hong Kong and hide vital data on the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Duterte is among the few leaders in the world who continue to trust China.

At home, however, he has not completely succeeded in convincing Filipinos to shift allegiance to China, as a big majority have remained staunch supporters of the United States as shown by surveys done by the Social Weather Stations.

Sadly, Duterte’s love for China was not fully reciprocated.  Beijing is still reluctant to pour aid, trade and investments to Manila compared with its other “friends” in the region.

For instance, the 24 billion pesos worth of bilateral deals Duterte brought back from China during his first visit in 2016 have remained pledges until now.

Only one loan project involving a dam in northern Luzon pushed through, while two smaller grants for construction of bridges in the capital have started.

In terms of trade, there was indeed an increase in Philippine exports of tropical fruits to China since 2016, but the United States and Japan remained the country’s main markets for major commodities and goods as of January, before the lockdown.

China’s investments on public infrastructure were also slow as most of the big-ticket projects under the “Build, Build, Build” program have not progressed from feasibility studies.

An example is the major water project in Kaliwa Dam in Quezon province. It was mired in ancestral domain and environmental concerns while construction of a railway in the president’s hometown was moving at an excruciatingly slow pace.

Even the third telecommunications network, despite a huge cash outlay from China, has barely taken off despite much support from the Philippine government.

Other Chinese projects never took off at all, like the eco-tourism projects on two islands in northern Luzon.

The Philippine Navy opposed a plan by two Chinese private investors to lease two strategic islands for eco-tourism projects, including one near a major shipyard used by the US Navy before. The US plans to return to Subic to operate a ship repair facility for the US Navy. The Philippine Navy also has a plan to put up a base there.

Moreover, the Philippines saw the proliferation of offshore gaming operations by Chinese companies instead of labor-intensive manufacturing and industrial investments, which the Philippines badly needs.

Many of these gaming facilities have been operating without licenses, evading local taxes and employing hundreds of thousands of Chinese nationals from the mainland, who had entered the country as tourists.

These POGOS (Philippine Offshore Gaming Operations) owed the government about 50 billion in unpaid taxes and have contributed to an increase in crimes like kidnap-for-ransom, murder, prostitution and human trafficking, and illegal drugs.

It was ironic that Duterte, who won in 2016 on a platform of fighting crime, corruption and illegal drugs, has failed to stop inflows of illicit narcotics from China.

Large volumes of “shabu” continue to flow like a jet stream, flooding the local market despite the increasing number of drug users and street-level peddlers killed in four years.

In the time of pandemic, law enforcement agencies have uncovered more nefarious activities by Chinese nationals, who operated unregistered hospitals as well as sold and distributed unregulated anti-viral drugs from China.

It appeared the Chinese nationals in the country did not trust the Philippines’ capability to address the coronavirus disease as they chose to rely on their own doctors, procedures and drugs.

Duterte’s government in contrast has unwavering faith in China’s capability to defeat the virus.

In fact, the Philippines has awarded Chinese companies with handsome supply contracts, purchasing more than 20 billion pesos worth of medical equipment and supplies after getting token donations of testing kits and PPEs from official and private groups, including a shipment from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

However, there were unvalidated reports the PPEs were substandard and the PCR testing machines were defective, as the health department struggled to address the backlog in testing.

With more than 40 laboratories accredited across the country, the Philippines should be able to conduct 50,000 tests every day. But actual tests daily are less than 15,000 because of the lack of chemical reagents as well as defective PCR extraction machines.

All this shows that in the last four years since Duterte came to power, there has been an imbalance of relations between Manila and Beijing.

China has benefited more from the relationship than the Philippines did.

For a token amount, Beijing has gained more influence and even expanded its interests not just in the country but in the Asia and Pacific region.

If there is one aspect that would never change in Philippine-China relations despite Duterte’s efforts to deepen and broaden ties between the two countries, it would be the issue of South China Sea.

Beijing continued to assert strongly and aggressively its claims on the entire South China Sea based on historical records and the “nine-dash-line” map drawn in 1949.

It has even ignored a 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague nullifying its excessive claim on the strategic waterway, which is contested by five other states including the Philippines.

Instead, it fortified its claims on the Spratlys by building man-made islands and turning them into garrisons, protected by missiles.

In contrast with China’s position, the Philippines, under Duterte, softened its stance on the South China Sea.

It refused to invoke the 2016 international tribunal ruling and the president’s office would always backpedal any strong statement against China coming from the foreign and defense departments.

For instance, Duterte has withdrawn a plan to visit the country’s occupied territory in the Spratlys after he was politely asked by a Chinese ambassador not to make a trip to Pagasa (Thitu) island.

It’s disheartening that Duterte was more concerned with how China would feel than with advancing the country’s national interests. He seems so careful not to hurt the feelings of Chinese officials that he has ignored his own people’s sentiments.

When he was campaigning for the presidency, he vowed to take a jet ski and plant a Philippine flag on a Chinese island in the South China Sea.

But he did nothing after he was elected into office. No one knows what changed his position and why he has softened on China.

It is highly irrational and incomprehensible for a leader to continue to make friends with a country that clearly tramples upon, violates and disrespects his own nation’s rights and sovereignty.

Duterte completely trusts China. But his faith in China is misplaced. He is an enigma. It defies logic why he continues to stick it out with China when most Filipinos hate the country for its provocative actions in the South China Sea and for flooding its streets with illegal drugs and other crimes.

The Philippines gets nothing out of the relationship. On the other hand, China has been taking full advantage of the ties without really giving too much in terms of concessions.

China’s national interests have remained the same from the very start. It does not want to invest more in a relationship that is unpredictable under Duterte.

Xi Jinping will not stay forever in power but China’s national interest will remain the same. It will be focused on its 2049 goal — to be the world’s number one economy and mightiest military machine.

It knows Duterte will be in office only until June 2022 and the country’s foreign policy can swing back to the West as the Filipino people are fiercely pro-American.

It is enjoying a free ride while a friendly Duterte is in power.