PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte heads to China next week seeking billions of dollars in investments and buckets of respect, as he pivots angrily away from traditional ally the United States.
Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to give the mercurial leader a warm welcome, after Duterte threatened to end a decades-long alliance with the United States and gave Beijing a timely boost in its quest for more control over the strategically vital South China Sea.
Duterte, 71, has said he is trying to wean the Philippines off an unhealthy reliance on its former colonial ruler, although he has signaled the shift is also due to his outrage at US criticism of his deadly war on crime.
Analysts believe Duterte’s attraction to a rising China is typical of his ultra-pragmatic governing style, following repeated speeches from him highlighting what he believes is the United States’ diminishing economic and military might.
“He is a results-oriented person, Machiavellian, too,” University of the Philippines political science professor Clarita Carlos said.
“The guy knows if he can find markets for our bananas, pineapples, and create employment, whether it’s China, Russia or Mali, that’s where we are going. Whatever works.”
Duterte is bringing along a delegation of hundreds of businessmen, including many of the Philippines’ most powerful tycoons, in a bid to capitalize on the warming of relations that have
taken place due to his efforts to placate Beijing on the South China Sea row.
China claims nearly all of the strategically vital sea, even waters approaching the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations, and has in recent years built artificial islands in the disputed areas that are capable of hosting military bases.
Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, infuriated Beijing by challenging it on a range of fronts.
Aquino allowed American troops to be stationed in the Philippines, launched joint patrols in the sea, filed a legal case at a UN-backed tribunal, repeatedly raised the issue at regional summits and refused to hold direct negotiations with Beijing.
In July, 12 days after Duterte took office, the international tribunal handed the Philippines a surprisingly resounding victory, ruling that China’s claims to most of the sea had no legal basis and that its artificial island-building was illegal.
But, instead of using the verdict to pressure China as Aquino would have done, Duterte sought to mend ties with Beijing.
He also launched a sustained verbal assault on the United States, scrapping the joint patrols as well as a series of annual war games.
During the election campaign, Duterte said he was willing to “set aside” the South China Sea dispute in return for China building a railway through Mindanao.
He also said it was not in the nation’s interest to insist on its claim over Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone that China seized in 2012.
“Let’s just not dwell on Scarborough because we cannot fight them,” Duterte said this week.
Duterte has also signalled he wants to go to Beijing to enjoy some respect, following relentless criticism from the West about alleged extrajudicial killings in his war on crime.
More than 3,300 people have been killed in the crackdown, and US President Barack Obama has been among the many critics to express concern about an apparent breakdown in the rule of law.
“Eventually I might in my term, break up with America. I would rather go to Russia or to China. Even if we do not agree with their ideology, they have respect for the people. Respect is important,” Duterte said this month.
He also said he hoped to visit Russia soon after China.
Maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal warned Duterte’s approach was a big gamble for the Philippines, with China the only sure winner at this stage.
Duterte “is taking a huge risk, betting all on China’s goodwill and beneficence without the insurance provided by the diversified, multilateral support of historical and traditional friends and allies”, Batongbacal, a University of the Philippines law professor, wrote this week.
Still, it is too early for China to claim victory, according to Richard Javad Heydarian, a regional expert at De La Salle University.
“I won’t be surprised if at some point Duterte will hedge his bets and pivot back to the US if he fails to get any satisfactory concession from China,” Heydarian said.
Ahead of Duterte’s visit, Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. said the Philippines was counting on economic diplomacy to resolve bilateral issues with its larger, more powerful neighbor.
“What we are doing now is to pursue the other aspects of our relationship in this area of trade investment and economic development, cultural exchanges and people-to-people contact, which is necessary in confidence building and needed for us to open the details of resolving our disputes in the South China Sea,” Yasay told Manila Standard in an interview.
“We may probably agree to the general principles on how to move forward, to that extent I am optimistic that we move to some kind of agreement on how to achieve that,” he added.
Yasay declined to comment on Batongbacal’s view that the country was taking a huge risk betting on Chinese good will, but said the way forward was to build more bridges.
“If we will be signing agreements with the Chinese, our primary purpose is to promote the national interest and welfare,” Yasay said.
On Thursday, the Chinese foreign ministry confirmed that Duterte will be meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during his state visit, and they would have a “deep exchange of views” on how to improve ties, cooperation and regional issues.
“China looks forward to increasing mutual trust between the two countries, deepening practical cooperation and continuing the tradition of friendship via the visit of President Duterte,” Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said.
“The Philippines is a traditionally friendly neighbor of China. The two peoples have a long history of friendship,” the ministry spokesperson said.
The Palace on Thursday said Duterte’s Special Envoy to China, former President Fidel Ramos, will not be accompanying Duterte on his state visit to China.
A Palace spokesman said he did not know why Ramos would not be joining Duterte, but suggested that having two presidents in the same trip might draw some attention away from the incumbent.
Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, meanwhile, said the objective during the visit will be to enhance trade levels between the two countries.
“We had talks with the government and the private sector and we expect more investments,” Lopez said.
The Philippines, he added, is looking forward for all forms of support, from funding and financing commitments to specific transactions with private companies or government-to-government deals.
While China is the country’s second largest trading partner, the government believes trade can still be enhanced with better relationships.
“A lot of business Chinese groups are visiting us and I am sure after the state visit we should expect more from the Chinese government and private groups,” said Lopez.
The Foreign Affairs department on Thursday declined to comment on the recent remarks of the top US diplomat for East Asia, Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel, said he was unsure what Duterte’s “panoply” of conflicting statements would mean for Manila’s future security cooperation with Washington.
On Wednesday, after a weeks-long torrent of anti-American rhetoric, Duterte said the Philippines would maintain its existing defense treaties and its military alliances.
But he also said his foreign policy was to “realign” with China and put an end to the yearly joint military exercises with the United States.
“President Duterte has made a panoply of statements; I think the operative adjective is ‘colorful,’” he said.
“But what that will ultimately translate [into] in terms of the ability of the Philippines to work with the United States on issues directly germane to security and even some of the regional and global challenges it faces ... we don’t have an answer to just yet.”
Russel said he was not aware of any changes in security cooperation but added, “I’m not saying it couldn’t happen, it wouldn’t happen.”
“There is a lot of noise, there’s a lot of stray voltage in the media, but ultimately the decisions about the alliance operations are going to be taken, I believe in a deliberate and thoughtful way,” Russel said. With Othel V. Campos, AFP
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