THE Philippines’ President, Rodrigo Duterte, jetted into Beijing last week telling journalists “only China can help us” — and help it did. The 71-year-old populist secured a reported $13.5bn (£11bn) in deals and a lucrative new alliance with the Asian giant. “It has the potential to be [a turning point in Philippine history],” one Manila broadsheet said of Duterte’s “pivot to China” after he delighted an audience of Communist party grandees in the Great Hall of the People by declaring his “separation” from the United States and new allegiance to Beijing.
On the surface, Duterte’s visit represents a resounding diplomatic success for both sides after years of toxic relations thanks to the tussle over disputed territories in the South China Sea. For the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who is about to complete four years in power, it was a rare foreign policy triumph. By seducing Washington’s best friend in south-east Asia, Xi, at a stroke, undermined one of the key planks of Barack Obama’s foreign policy – the “pivot to Asia” bid to counter Beijing’s influence in the region. “This was a huge strategic coup for the Chinese,” said Richard Javad Heydarian, a Manila-based foreign affairs expert and author.
Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor and government adviser from China’s Renmin University, said Beijing believed improving previously frosty relations with Manila would boost its regional standing and, eventually, “weaken America’s strategic position in the western Pacific”. Yet, in order to secure the collaboration of a key US ally, China had promised only limited economic assistance and select political favours that did not involve making a single concession over its territorial claims, Shi pointed out. “It’s a good deal for China.”
But as the Philippine leader flew home to trumpet his achievements, many questions remained. Would he really break off ties with the US, for years one of his country’s closest allies? If so, at what cost? And how might Washington react to Duterte’s public rejection of its friendship? “He still could change his words in future,” said Shi. “Now he is in Beijing and he is speaking words to a Chinese audience … But after Beijing he will be in Tokyo. I think what he will say in Tokyo will naturally be somewhat different from what he said in Beijing. Philippines-American relations have been damaged, of course. But still, this is only beginning. In future nothing is certain.”
In Washington, officials share the view that the unpredictable Philippine leader could easily pivot back to the US if he believes it better serves his interests. “There is no question that Duterte is … trying to play the well-worn game of playing us off against the Chinese,” one official told Reuters. Indeed, just hours after Duterte announced his breakup with America, his trade minister Ramon Lopez denied such a split would occur. “Let me clarify. The president did not talk about separation,” he told CNN Philippines, adding: “We definitely won’t stop the trade and investment activities with the west, specifically the US.”
While Duterte has vowed to end joint maritime patrols in the South China Sea and called for US special forces to leave the southern island of Mindanao, no concrete steps appear to have been taken to realise them. Even so, the swiftness and venom with which Duterte has spurned his country’s most powerful ally – he has repeatedly called Barack Obama a “son of a whore” – has caused alarm in Philippines, both on streets and the corridors of power. “What is unfolding before us must be considered a national tragedy,” country’s former foreign minister, Albert del Rosario, said in a scathing statement released on Friday.
Joseph Franco, a Philippines specialist from Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, said Duterte’s “wild and crazy statements” had also left many within the political and military establishment on edge. “It’s like Kim Jong-un minus the nukes,” he said. Franco, who used to work for the chief of staff of the Philippines armed forces, said officials were desperately trying to understand “where does the hyperbole and rhetoric end and where does the policy begin?” “I know people who are at their wits end, frankly, within the foreign ministry and the army.” — Courtesy: The Guardian