5 ways Duterte made good on his pivot to China

Pia Ranada

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5 ways Duterte made good on his pivot to China

Rene B. Lumawag

As Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Manila, Rappler takes a look at how Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's 'pivot' to China has materialized

MANILA, Philippines – When President Rodrigo Duterte visited Beijing in October 2016, China hailed it as signalling the “full recovery” of Chinese-Philippine ties.

With Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Manila starting Tuesday, November 20, things have come full circle. (READ: Xi Jinping’s schedule of activities in PH)

At this point, “warming of ties” is an understatement of Duterte’s embrace of China and its charismatic and powerful leader Xi.

Former CNN Beijing bureau chief Jaime Florcruz describes the relationship as a “bromance,” but one where there is a definite power imbalance.

“I think Duterte realizes the limits of the relationship. He knows Xi won’t go all the way to please,” Florcruz told Rappler.

On the surface, Duterte and Xi make an incongruous pair – the loose-tongued Philippine leader who rolls up his sleeves and disdains formalities beside a stiff Xi who would rather project power than likeability.

Yet it’s Duterte who breathed new life into their countries’ enfeebled diplomatic ties.

In the last two years of his presidency, Duterte has done several things to protect and foster this friendship:

  • Heaped praises on Xi, China in public speeches
  • Refrained from asserting the Philippines’ legal victory against China on the South China Sea
  • Announced changes to military activities that have angered China
  • Allowed Chinese planes, ships to land or dock in Davao City
  • Welcomed Chinese businessmen, investments

Duterte has visited China every year in his presidency – the first time, a state visit in October 2016, the second to attend the Belt and Road Forum in May 2017, and the 3rd to attend the Boao Forum in April this year.

Praises for Xi, China

The public got a taste of what was to come when then-president-elect Duterte, from his transition team headquarters in Davao City, called Xi a “great president.” This was after Xi sent him a letter congratulating him for winning the presidency. 

Since then, Duterte has showered Xi with exhortations of gratitude, thanking  him for “loving the Philippines” and saying China, under Xi, has “really lightened up the economic life of our country.”

At times, these platitudes sounded like vows of subservience, with Duterte saying one has to “remain meek and humble” when dealing with Xi. He had even declared in a public speech: “I need China more than anybody else at this time of our national life. I need China.” 

Xi and the Chinese government have reciprocated, in some ways. Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Davao called Duterte Xi’s “most respected friend.”

Xi, according to Duterte at least, even promised to protect him from any ouster plot.

He claimed Xi told him in a meeting, “We will not allow you to be taken out from your office.”

Some Filipinos thought Duterte may have gone too far when he joked in February that China should just declare the Philippines as its province. A few months later, some pranksters rode on the joke by displaying banners that said, “Welcome to the Philippines, Province of China,” in footbridges near Malacañang.

Refraining from raising Hague ruling or using aggressive language

But it’s likely that it is what is not being said that is keeping Philippine-China ties nice and warm.

Early on in his presidency, Duterte said he would not use the Hague ruling just yet to assert Philippine rights over the West Philippine Sea.

He also expressed openness to joint exploration in the contested waters and canceled his visits to Pag-asa Island upon China’s request (he had earlier insisted that his “jetski to Spratlys” promise was just a joke). 

For sea law experts and critics, it also doesn’t help that Duterte can be quite careless in his use of words and framing of the South China Sea disputes – like claiming that going to war with China is the only other option to assert Philippine rights, appearing to say China “is in possession” of the South China Sea, or saying the sea code of conduct is a way for China to tell Southeast Asian countries how to behave in contested waters.

More than two years on, Duterte is yet to raise the Hague ruling. However, he’s recently intimated that he might bring it up if China insists on taking resources from the West Philippine Sea on its own.

He’s also twice called China out for aggressive radio warnings to Philippine aircraft and ships passing through the South China Sea, an unusual rebuke given Duterte’s past appeasing tone. 

Announced changes in military policy to appease China

Duterte has also made sure to announce changes in military policy that appear to favor China. 

His latest capitulation is declaring there will be no military exercises with the Americans in the West Philippine Sea during Xi’s visit. 

Early on in his presidency, he said the Philippines would stop joining joint patrols with the US in those waters.

His first visit to China had made headlines when he declared there his “separation” from the US militarily and economically. Duterte could not have chosen a more dramatic way to verbalize his pivot to China.

In the same speech, he indicated one reason why he prefers Beijing to Washington DC.

“Duterte of the Philippines is veering towards China because China has the character of an Oriental. It does not go around insulting people,” he had said, to loud applause from his audience. 

Chinese planes landing, ships docking in Davao City

Under the Duterte administration, the landings of Chinese planes and docking of its warships have made headlines.

Twice in June, a Chinese military plane landed in Davao City, Duterte’s hometown, for “refuelling stops,” which former national security adviser Roilo Golez described as “not usual,” as he called on transparency from the government.

It turned out afterwards that the Department of National Defense had no prior knowledge of the landing, leading security consultant Jose Custodio to point out the constitutional prohibition on the presence of foreign troops on Philippine soil.

A month later, a Chinese military monitoring vessel, the Yuanwang-3, docked at the Davao Port. A year before, in May, Duterte himself inspected 3 Chinese warships in the same port.

Welcomed Chinese businessmen, investments 

Duterte’s enthusiasm for China has opened the doors to Chinese investments, with Chinese businessmen lining up to pay him courtesy calls. One group even got to present project plans during a Cabinet meeting. (READ: Chinese businessmen flock to Duterte’s Malacañang)

The coveted 3rd telecommunications player spot went to a consortium involving ChinaTelecom, which Duterte himself said was Beijing’s top choice.

However, the first oil service contract awarded during the Duterte presidency went to an Israeli, and not a Chinese, firm. 

It’s also telling of Duterte’s foreign economic policy that his only known foreign consultant for economic affairs is Chinese businessman Michael Yang. 

Malacañang has said Yang helps connect Chinese businessmen with Duterte and helps the Philippine leader understand Chinese culture. 

Yet Duterte has also sounded the alarm over certain Chinese investment areas. Despite the interest of many Chinese firms in putting up casinos in the Philippines, Duterte announced no new licenses would be issued for new casinos.

He also recently declared he wants to “suppress” online gambling, an industry bringing in lots of Chinese citizens to the Philippines. 

Xi’s state visit is just the latest highpoint reached by Philippine-China ties under Duterte. With a joint exploration deal in the horizon, the ever-present Hague ruling, and pressure from other strategic allies, a lot can still change in the remaining 4 years of Duterte’s presidency.

But one thing’s for sure: as Xi lands in Manila on Tuesday, he can expect a “friend” waiting for him in Malacañang. – Rappler.com

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Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is Rappler’s Community Lead, in charge of linking our journalism with communities for impact.