From duets to sea disputes: When Chinese presidents visit Philippines

Paterno Esmaquel II
Remember the duet of Fidel V. Ramos and Jiang Zemin, or the awkward walk of Noynoy Aquino and Xi Jinping?

PH-CHINA DUET. Chinese President Jiang Zemin (L) and Philippine President Fidel Ramos (R) sing a duet number with a string quartet at a state dinner for Jiang in Malacañang Palace on November 26, 1996. Photo by AFP

MANILA, Philippines – Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to the Philippines from November 20 to 21 is the fourth by a Chinese president since Manila and Beijing established diplomatic relations 4 decades ago.

Three Chinese presidents have visited the Philippines since the two countries forged diplomatic ties on June 9, 1975:

  • President Jiang Zemin – November 26 to 28, 1996
  • President Hu Jintao – April 26 to 28, 2005
  • President Xi Jinping – November 17 to 19, 2015

Referring to Xi’s upcoming trip, Foreign Secretary Teodoro “Teddyboy” Locsin Jr said: “This visit will be the 4th by a Chinese president, the second by President Xi, and the 8th by a ranking Chinese leader if we include premiers. That, if nothing else, reaffirms and reasserts a long and valued friendship.”

While different agreements were signed in previous trips, a constant was the shadow cast by the South China Sea dispute.

For decades, the Philippines and China have been embroiled in a dispute over the islands and waters of the South China Sea, which is said to be rich in oil and natural gas. It has always been a sore spot in ties between the Philippines and China.

Jiang Zemin’s duet with Fidel V. Ramos

The South China Sea was a topic that couldn’t be dodged even in the first state visit of a Chinese president to the Philippines.

FRIENDLY TIES. Chinese President Jiang Zemin (left) looks up laughing as Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos gestures following Jiang's arrival for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Subic Bay, November 25, 1996. Photo by Yoshikazu Tsuno/AFP

President Jiang Zemin held his state visit right after the Philippines hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit that year. It was also a year after the Philippines discovered Chinese structures on Mischief Reef in the disputed South China Sea. 

“The Spratlys are Chinese territory. Of course, the two sides, China and the Philippines, hold different views on this issue. However, both sides agreed that this issue will be settled through peaceful consultation,” China spokesman Shen Guofang said back then as quoted by the Associated Press (AP). 

During the same state visit, Jiang assured 200,000 overseas Filipino workers that they “can keep their jobs” once Hong Kong is handed over to China in 1997, according to AP.

But for many, Jiang’s visit was most memorable for a not-too-serious move.

In Malacañang, Jiang suddenly stood up, picked up the microphone, and sang when the string quartet played One Day When We Were Young. He later sang songs such as Swanee River and an excerpt from a Chinese opera. A photo released by Agence France-Presse showed Jiang and President Fidel V. Ramos in a duet.

The singing continued in another event aboard the ship BRP Ang Pangulo in Manila Bay. Together, Ramos and Jiang sang Love Me Tender by Elvis Presley. “That’s the favorite song of Bill Clinton. So you have to prepare when he visits you. You will surprise him,” Ramos told Jiang. (READ: When the Philippines and China sang, danced on a Manila Bay cruise

Hu Jintao’s moments with Gloria Arroyo

It took 11 more years before another Chinese president visited the Philippines – this time President Hu Jintao under President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.

Hu made his state visit to the Philippines a month after the March 2005 signing of the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) between the Philippines, China, and Vietnam to jointly explore Philippine waters. (A case is pending before the Supreme Court on whether the botched JMSU was unconstitutional.) 

STATE VISIT. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo (right) and her visiting Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao (left) shake hands at the Malacañang presidential palace in Manila on April 27, 2005. Photo by Jay Directo/Pool/AFP

“China and the Philippines have taken the lead in making breakthrough progresses on the joint exploitation in the South China Sea, a commendable step to make the South China Sea a sea of friendship and cooperation,” said the Chinese foreign ministry in a news release after Hu’s visit. 

Those were more pleasant days for the Philippines and China – a far cry from what happened 7 years later, under Arroyo’s successor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III. 

Xi Jinping’s awkward walk with Noynoy Aquino

In January 2013, the Philippines filed a historic case against China over the South China Sea – already called by Manila as the West Philippine Sea – before an international tribunal at The Hague.

The case angered China, and not even China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, wanted to visit the Philippines. 

But then, after 20 years, it was the Philippines’ turn to host APEC again from November 16 to 19, 2015. One of the guests was President Xi Jinping, who was in the Philippines from November 17 to 19.

JUST BUSINESS. Philippine President Benigno Aquino (right) shake hands with Chinese President Xi Jinping (left) upon arrival ahead of a welcome dinner for Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) leaders in Manila on November 18, 2015. Photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

But Xi was in Manila only for APEC. He did not hold a bilateral meeting with Aquino, only a two-minute chat during the summit. 

There was even an awkward moment between Aquino and Xi while walking inside the Philippine International Convention Center, the site of the APEC Summit.

'AWKWARD MOMENT.' Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Chinese President Xi Jinping walk together – with Chilean President Michelle Bachelet as their buffer – in the Philippine International Convention Center. Screen grab from pool video

There was Xi, walking alone, while Aquino was speaking with the animated Chilean President Michelle Bachelet. “Painful to watch. Xi in long, lonely walk up APEC 2015 red carpet, completely ignored by Aquino and Bachelet,” journalist Jerome Taylor tweeted back then.

(Watch that awkward moment below.)

Fast-forward to 2018, Xi is coming back to the Philippines, but in a different context. 

This time he is set to be welcomed by a Philippine leader who proudly proclaims, “I just simply love Xi Jinping,” and a government that wants joint exploration with China despite questions about Arroyo’s JMSU. 

While the Philippines won the case filed by Aquino over the West Philippine Sea, President Rodrigo Duterte has shelved the ruling to get loans and grants from Beiijing.

No more awkward walks for Xi Jinping. Rappler.com

Paterno Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.