Duterte’s visit has ush­ered in a new era

China Daily (Canada) - - VIEWS -

Dur­ing his four-day state visit to China last week, and his first to a coun­try out­side the As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east AsianNa­tions, Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte proved to be more than a man of his words.

His acer­bic re­marks on the Manila-Wash­ing­ton al­liance apart, Duterte made gen­uine ef­forts dur­ing his visit to China to put Bei­jing-Manila ties back on track after his pre­de­ces­sor Benigno Aquino III soured the re­la­tion­ship be­tween China and the Philip­pines by bla­tantly sid­ing with theUnited States to ini­ti­ate ar­bi­tral pro­ceed­ings against Bei­jing over their mar­itime dis­pute in the South China Sea.

In­ter­ac­tions be­tween Chi­nese and Philip­pine lead­er­ships, for starters, are likely to re­sume after Duterte’s visit to China, when he and his host Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping wit­nessed the sign­ing of many a co­op­er­a­tion deal. Duterte’s visit should help the two sides re­store the dam­aged mu­tual trust and re­vi­tal­ize their co­op­er­a­tion in in­fras­truc­ture build­ing, and com­bat­ing drug traf­fick­ing and ter­ror­ism.

In par­tic­u­lar, the two coun­tries pledged to re­solve their dis­pute in the South China Sea through con­sul­ta­tions and ne­go­ti­a­tions by the di­rectly con­cerned sov­er­eign states, ac­cord­ing to a joint state­ment is­sued on Fri­day. In this con­text, Duterte, un­like his pre­de­ces­sor, is ex­pected to adopt a more in­de­pen­dent, flex­i­ble and com­pre­hen­sive for­eign pol­icy to strike a bal­ance be­tween ma­jor re­gional pow­ers.

How­ever, it is im­pos­si­ble for Duterte to seek full “sep­a­ra­tion” from theUS, even though he is un­happy with the Philip­pines’ long-time ally. Take the Philip­pines’ mil­i­tary de­pen­dence on the US for ex­am­ple. Most of the weapons used by the Philip­pine mil­i­tary are sup­plied by theUS and many mil­i­tary per­son­nel have been trained in theUS. That Duterte hinted at forg­ing a new “al­liance” with China and Rus­sia and buy­ing weapons from the two coun­tries was more like emo­tional talk rather than a warn­ing to the over­reach­ingUS.

Given the close eco­nomic ties be­tweenWash­ing­ton andManila, a breakup be­tween the al­lies seem un­likely. As of 2015, theUS had more di­rect in­vest­ment in the Philip­pines than any other coun­try; and at least 30 per­cent of the 10 mil­lion Philip­pine ex­pa­tri­ates work in theUS.

The joint state­ment by Bei­jing andManila does avoid any men­tion of the South China Sea ar­bi­tra­tion case ini­ti­ated by the for­mer Philip­pine gov­ern­ment against China, but that does not mean their ter­ri­to­rial dis­pute is set­tled. The Philip­pines is un­will­ing to make com­pro­mises and needs theUS to en­dorse its claims. And al­thoughWash­ing­ton has ba­si­cally stayed calm in the face of “dra­mat­i­cally” im­prov­ing Bei­jing-Manila re­la­tions, which can re­duce the pos­si­bil­ity of the US root­ing for its Asian ally in the South China Sea is­sue, it is un­likely to sit idle while the ties be­tween Bei­jing andManila im­prove.

The USS De­catur’s in­tru­sion into China’s ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters near Xisha Is­lands on the last day of Duterte’s China visit sent a sig­nal to the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity thatWash­ing­ton will con­tinue to in­ter­vene in the South China Sea is­sue on the pre­text of pro­tect­ing “nav­i­ga­tional free­dom” de­spite the im­prove­ment in the Bei­jingManila ties.

Be­sides, theUS wel­comes Ja­pan and the Philip­pines, its two close al­lies, to strengthen their mar­itime co­op­er­a­tion, in an at­tempt to con­sol­i­date its re­gional lead­er­ship with­out di­rectly con­fronting China. But its in­ter­ven­tion in the South China Sea is­sue would only back­fire should all par­ties di­rectly in­volved man­age to reach a con­sen­sus on shelv­ing their dis­putes to deal with more ur­gent is­sues.

The au­thor is a re­searcher at the Na­tional In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Strat­egy at the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences.

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