The outspoken President of the Philippines has declared himself “happy that China is leading the way in Asia” as he prepared to land in Beijing Tuesday on a four-day visit, the latest sign that one of the closest U.S. allies in Asia is staging a dramatic turn away from Washington.
The Philippines wants “to be a part of the greater plans of China about Asia, particularly southeast Asia,” Rodrigo Duterte said in an interview with China’s state-run Xinhua News released on the eve of his visit. He wants to secure for his country the kind of economic largesse China bestows upon impoverished African countries, “the railways and everything,” he said.
“There are things which China can do to help us economically.”
Mr. Duterte, who has used coarse language to disparage U.S. President Barack Obama, will land in Beijing to a hero’s welcome. He has exercised “pluck and pragmatism,” Xinhua said in a glowing commentary Tuesday that promised “a Beijing-Manila détente will be richly rewarding.”
It was the latest signal that the Philippines has become the most coveted spot on the chessboard between China and the U.S. – and that, for now, Beijing seems to be winning.
Mr. Duterte has said he will not abandon the 65-year alliance between the U.S. and the Philippines, which occupies a central position geographically and politically in Washington’s regional ambitions.
But he has said he will buy military equipment from China and Russia and halt joint naval patrols with the U.S. in the South China Sea, where the Philippines this summer won a major victory in an international court against China’s aggressive maritime expansion in the region.
Such steps would constitute a major break with the U.S. and a clear gain for China as it seeks uncontested rule of the South China Sea.
Now, Mr. Duterte’s trip presents the first major test of what he can actually achieve with China, and whether he can convince his own people that it’s worth making what would be a historic shift.
“In his mind, the economic opportunities provided by China are too big to pass up,” said Jay Batongbacal, director of the Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines.
But “it’s a risky policy at this point,” he said.
For former Congressman and national security adviser Roilo Golez, it’s a choice in part of whose company the Philippines wants to keep. Does it want to number among those close to the U.S., wealthy democracies in the region such as Australia, Japan and South Korea? Or does it want to slip into China’s orbit, alongside Cambodia, Laos and North Korea?
By some measures, the Philippines belongs to the China group. On infrastructure, the Philippines has some of the worst roads, railroads and electrical supply in southeast Asia, on par with Cambodia and Laos, according to a report published this year by the International Monetary Fund.
But few in the Philippines see things that way. A national survey published Monday showed the U.S. as the most trusted among major powers. China ranked dead last, by a large margin.
The “pivot to China is against the grain, nay, against the current of public opinion in the Philippines,” Mr. Golez said. “A lot of people are concerned about this rebalancing.”
In courting Beijing, Mr. Duterte risks squandering the political leverage the Philippines has gained against China after its legal win on the South China Sea. He even risks his own presidency, after a Supreme Court judge warned he could be impeached if he is found to have weakened the country’s sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, a maritime feature claimed by the Philippines but effectively controlled by China, whose Coast Guard has barred Filipino fishing boats from operating in the area.
Mr. Duterte has said he wants fishing rights in the area restored.
On that one issue could rest the success of his trip. China has been unwilling to compromise on maritime issues, building extensive military facilities on artificial islands in disputed areas. Will it bend to Mr. Duterte?
“Mr. Duterte is offering China an olive branch. And if the Chinese don’t take it, and if they don’t respond in a more flexible and accommodating way, then I think he could easily be personally offended by this,” said Ian Storey, a senior fellow at the Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
If that happens, he could follow his predecessors, who began their terms seeking better ties with China, only to have those efforts evaporate into corruption allegations and acrimony.
“Given that he’s a populist President and public opinion polls toward China are very unfavourable, he might well start to pursue a more hardline policy toward China,” Mr. Storey said.
A draft list of outcomes expected by the Philippines contains no reference to Scarborough Shoal, the Associated Press reported.
Still, Beijing is expected to be generous.
“My guess is the Chinese will see this as a golden opportunity to get the Philippines to align with Beijing rather than with the United States,” said Malcolm Davis, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute.
“From Mr. Duterte’s perspective, he will play along to a degree. But ultimately, he is constrained by his supporting elements in government, the military, the Senate and so forth. And he knows he can’t just sign away the farm, because if he goes too far he may then start to face internal opposition – and may lose popular support as well.”