Duterte arrives in China to tackle sea row, economic pledges with Xi

Pia Ranada
The Philippine President lands in China for his awaited fifth visit where he will raise West Philippine Sea issues and call for the fast-tracking of big-ticket Chinese projects

CHINA-BOUND. President Rodrigo Duterte boards a plane bound for the People's Republic of China at the Villamor Air Base in Pasay City on August 28, 2019. Photo by King Rodriguez/Presidential photo

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Beijing, China for his much-awaited meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping and a sidetrip to the province to catch the FIBA World Cup games.

Duterte and members of his delegation landed in Beijing at 11:11 pm on Wednesday, August 28.

With him on this trip are:

  • Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr
  • Executive Secretary Salvador Medialdea
  • Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III
  • Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana
  • Trade and Industry Secretary Ramon Lopez
  • Science and Technology Secretary Fortunato Dela Peña
  • Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi
  • National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr
  • Commission on Higher Education Chairperson Prospero De Vera III
  • Customs Commissioner Rey Guerrero
  • Presidential Spokesperson Salvador Panelo

Some of these officials arrived in China ahead of the President.

Schedule of events

Duterte’s bilateral meeting with Xi will take place the following night, on Thursday, August 29, at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. This will immediately be followed by the signing of agreements.

After the meeting, Xi will host a state banquet for Duterte.

On Friday, August 30, Duterte will hold a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People, in the late afternoon. He is also scheduled to attend a “Philippine-China Business Forum” at a hotel in Beijing.

After the forum, he will grace the FIBA Basketball World Cup Opening Ceremony.

Right after this, Duterte will fly to Guangzhou in Guangdong province to meet China’s Vice President Wang Qishan and watch Philippine basketball team Gilas Pilipinas do battle with Italy for their first FIBA game.

What to expect

The most awaited part of the trip – Duterte’s fifth to China so far – is his Thursday meeting with Xi. (READ: When Duterte meets with Xi: What West PH Sea deals were reached in past talks?)

Hague ruling, West Philippine Sea: Duterte has repeatedly promised he would finally “raise” the Hague ruling before the Chinese leader during the meeting. It’s a vow he first made in his first year as president.

Analysts, however, have low expectations for the impact of this mention of the Hague ruling if Duterte does not back it up with larger diplomatic and security efforts.

Apart from bringing up the arbitral ruling, Panelo has said Duterte may also discuss recent flashpoints between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea, including intrusions by Chinese warships in Philippine territorial waters.

The June ramming of a Chinese vessel into a Filipino fishing boat in Recto Bank (Reed Bank) is yet another incident looming over the trip.

But just as Duterte was preparing to leave for Beijing, China sent a letter with an apology from the owner of the Chinese boat – an apology promptly accepted by the Philippines. 

Joint oil and gas exploration: Closely tied with his promise to raise the ruling is the exploration and exploitation of oil and gas his government hopes to undertake with China’s help.

“The President will also discuss with President Xi the ways and means on how to go about the conduct and framework of a possible joint exploration between the Philippines and China in the West Philippine Sea,” Panelo said on Wednesday.

There’s currently a ban on all exploration and exploitation of natural resources in the West Philippine Sea, given the heated dispute with China. This could change following successful negotiations on how the joint exploration is to be done.

Sources have said the intergovernmental committee and the inter-entrepreneurial working group stipulated in the November 2018 memorandum of understanding may be formed during Duterte’s visit.

The groups are supposed to come up with “cooperation agreements” by this November, only two months away.

Duterte has said he is amenable to a 60-40 sharing scheme, in favor of the Philippines, supposedly suggested by China. But the government is yet to clarify how such a sharing scheme will be spelled out in the agreements.

China’s economic promises: Where are all the infrastructure projects and economic gains Duterte promised would come from China if he delayed raising the Hague ruling?

Panelo said Duterte would precisely raise the need to speed up such projects in his meeting with Xi.

The spokesperson said “fast-tracking the existing big-ticket projects of China in the Philippines” and “improving our trade relations” will be a talking point between the two leaders.

The Duterte government is under pressure to prove that its cultivation of warmer ties with China has been worth it.

Critics have questioned the wisdom of this soft approach, saying China’s economic pledges have been empty promises and pointing to continued Chinese harassment in the West Philippine Sea.

POGOs? The proliferation of Philippine online gambling operations (POGOs), accompanied by an influx of illegal Chinese workers, has also been a recent sour point.

China has asked the Philippines to ensure better treatment of its nationals and stop the operations completely. But the Philippine finance department projects P8 billion in revenue from POGOs this year.

It remains to be seen if Chinese officials will bring up the issue with Duterte.

South China Sea code: Duterte has also said he would emphasize to Xi the need to speed up the completion of the South China Sea code of conduct.

This code is currently being finalized by Southeast Asian countries (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and China and is supposed to spell out guidelines and protocols to ensure no violent confrontation erupts in the sea.

The Philippines, Indonesia, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam all claim parts of the South China Sea. But it’s China which has the biggest claim of all, using its 9-dash line. That claim, however, has been struck down by the Hague ruling, after the Philippines brought the Asian power to court. – Rappler.com 

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada is a senior reporter for Rappler covering Philippine politics and environmental issues. For tips and story suggestions, email her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.