Duterte's diplomatic dance in China: How hard a pivot away from US?

China is 'rolling out the red carpet' for the Philippines leader, whose four-day visit caps a months-long initiative to improve a strained relationship. Both sides are looking for concessions.

Thomas Peter/Reuters
President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte arrives at a hotel in Beijing, China, Oct. 18, 2016.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in China Tuesday amid an aggressive push to improve ties with Asia’s largest economy, a strategic gamble that will test his commitment to his country’s longstanding partnership with the United States.

The four-day visit marks the culmination of President Duterte’s months-long charm offensive toward Beijing. Since taking office June 30, he has sought to improve a strained relationship with China while reducing military cooperation with the US.

“It’s only China [that] can help us,” Duterte told Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, in an interview released Monday.

How far he is willing to go on the basis of that belief will be more evident this week when he meets with China’s top leaders, who are eager to pull him closer and help thwart American-led efforts to counter China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia.

The Philippines has long been one of America’s closest allies in region. But Duterte’s harsh criticism of US military influence in his country, coupled with his enthusiastic embrace of China, has handed Beijing a potential diplomatic coup de grace, says Richard Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at De Le Salle University in Manila.

“Duterte presents a very sumptuous and unique opportunity for President Xi Jinping,” he says. “If he can manage to get Duterte out of the American orbit, then he can say, ‘I took out America's No. 1 proxy in the South China Sea.’ ”

Malcolm Cook, a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore, says the Chinese are “rolling out the red carpet” for Duterte’s state visit. He is scheduled to meet with President Xi and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing Thursday, and will also visit the Great Wall.

China’s efforts to court Duterte started well before his arrival Tuesday. Last week Zhao Jianhua, China's ambassador to the Philippines, announced plans to lift a travel warning established in 2014 that advised Chinese tourists to avoid the country for safety reasons.

The Chinese government has signaled plans to lift import bans on dozens of Philippine fruits and explore other commercial trade partnerships. Also up for negotiation are potential small arms sales and support for Duterte’s violent war on drugs, which has killed nearly 1,900 people.

"The clouds are fading away,” Ambassador Zhao said in Manila this month. “The sun is rising over the horizon and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”

Sought-after concessions

The groundwork for that new chapter will likely be laid this week. Analysts say Duterte will need to return home with tangible concessions to prove to a skeptical Filipino public that his rebalancing toward China will pay off. He has said he wants the Chinese to construct new railways and to allow Filipino fishermen to return to traditional fishing grounds around the contested Scarborough Shoal.

In return, Chinese leaders hope Duterte will follow through on his plans to scale back the Philippines’ military engagements with the US. Ultimately, they would like to see the Philippines scrap a 2014 agreement that gives US forces greater access to bases across the country.

“Indirectly China hopes to encourage the Philippines to gradually move away from its military alliance with the US,” says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “It will greatly benefit China’s position in Southeast Asia.”

Tensions surrounding the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef off the northwest Philippines, present one of the biggest hurdles for the two neighbors. China took control of the shoal in 2012 and proceeded to block Filipino fishermen from accessing it. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, challenged the move in an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague.

The tribunal handed the Philippines a landmark victory in July, declaring China’s claim to the reef illegal and specifically ruling that it had violated the rights of Filipino fishermen. Yet Duterte has not pressed the Chinese government to comply with the decision, which it has refused to recognize.

Can China trust Duterte?

Duterte has since found himself in the precarious position of trying to mend relations with China while also defending his country’s claims in the South China Sea. In a speech Sunday, he said he would not bargain over the Philippines' territorial claims in the disputed waters. He promised to raise the issue of the July ruling with Chinese leaders but added without elaborating that “there will be no hard impositions.” 

“The Chinese objective is for the actual territorial dispute and who owns what to be pushed to the side,” says Robert Ross, a political science professor at Boston College and a South China Sea expert. “They're going to try to move relations on in other areas where they can cooperate and mitigate the influence of the territorial dispute.”

But how much China trusts Duterte remains a major uncertainty, and could determine how much it is willing to grant him in terms of economic support. His brash and mercurial approach to politics has drawn widespread criticism and raised concerns among foreign leaders. Mr. Cook of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies says those in Beijing will likely be cautious. 

“Everyone is trying to get an understanding of what makes Duterte tick,” he say. “If I was in China that would be my biggest worry: How predictable is this guy? I wouldn’t be too confident.”

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