The Philippines' president is headed to China with high hopes, but he may be in for a rough landing

Photo: Ye Aung Thu/ AFP/ Getty Images.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte arrived in Beijing on Tuesday after months of overtures for better relations with the Chinese government.

His arrival in China has been accompanied by a series of interviews on that country’s state media in which Duterte has voiced his affinity for the Asian giant and his hopes to affirm good relations between the two countries.

But Duterte’s outreach to China is fraught with risks — even in a situation in which he gets what he wants, he may find himself returning to a Philippines with reduced standing in the region, weakened relations with a longstanding ally, and less leverage in its dealings with China.

Duterte, whose grandfather was an immigrant from China’s Xiamen province, has sought to underscore the closeness of his country and China and the necessity of improved relations with Beijing for Manila. “My grandfather is Chinese … It’s only China (that) can help us,” Duterte said in an interview with China’s Xiahua.

His representatives have referred to the trip as way to “reboot” relations between the two countries. Ahead of the visit, he has done much to win Beijing’s favour, including rebuffing the US over joint military exercises, downplaying an international-court ruling that rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea, and criticising US leadership.

From China, he hopes to secure advantageous trade and investment deals. He has carted some 200 business leaders along with him to Beijing and has spent months arguing that China could provide infrastructure aid for railways in his home state of Mindanao and elsewhere in the Philippines.

“There will be a lot, I mean a lot, of business contracts that will be signed,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Charles Jose has said.

The South China Sea has also loomed large in the lead up to the visit.

Even though Duterte said he would not deviate from the July court ruling and that he would not bring up the issue during his visit, a Philippine official did tell Reuters that he intended to raise the issue of Filipino fishermen, who had been denied access to waters around Scarborough since 2012, when China seized the shoal.

Duterte is not the first Philippine leader to enter office hoping to rebuild ties with China, and he may not be the first to see those hopes founder over Scarborough’s rocky outcroppings.

Duterte has spoken with bravado about the shoal, asserting Philippine claims on it, a stance that has wide support among Filipinos. But since taking office he has moderated his tone about dealings with China. And reports over the last few days indicate may China may be willing to offer a deal: Recognise China’s authority over Scarborough in exchange for Beijing granting Manila permission to fish in the waters around it.

“Everybody can go [to Scarborough Shoal], but there will be conditions,” a Chinese source in contact with senior Chinese officials told Reuters, adding, “The two countries would have to form working groups to iron out details” when asked what those conditions would be.

China’s Global Times newspaper also called on Beijing to offer that deal — a stance that AFP noted implied China had the right to grant those privileges.

But in being open to a deal with China over Scarborough, Duterte likely puts himself in a position where no matter what he comes home with, he will be greeted with disapproval.

“If he returns without any concession, it would be a humiliating blow since he’s already gone out of his way to distance himself from the Philippines’ allies,” Jay Batongbacal, an ocean lawyer at the University of the Philippines, told Chatham House’s Bill Hayton. “If he returns with a concession, he will be seen as having succumbed to China and to have abandoned long-standing good relations for a pittance.”

A deal allowing Philippine fishermen to return to Scarborough’s waters could “be a diplomatic masterstroke by China,” Hayton noted.

Such a deal would put a divide between Manila and Washington and allies in the region that have all worked to contain China in the South China Sea.

Concessions to China over Scarborough would likely alienate Duterte from his constituents at home, who have given him high approval marks amid a bloody crackdown on drugs that has earned international criticism.

“At the minimum [Duterte] shouldn’t be seen as giving up our claims to Scarborough, or seen as backtracking given the favourable ruling of the Arbitral Tribunal,” Renato Reyes, the secretary-general of radical grassroots coalition Bayan, said, according to Hayton.

Duterte’s own ardent assertions about Manila’s claims in the South China Sea — he vowed to Jet Ski to Scarborough and plant the Philippine flag there — won him much support, and a reversal now would likely sour his standing at home.

A deal with Beijing could also damage the Philippines’ ties with the US. Even though the US has encouraged dialogue between Manila and Beijing (despite Duterte’s tirades against the US), it has stressed the importance of adhering to the ruling issued in July.

“I do not believe that public opinion in the Philippines or the national interest of the Philippines would support the relinquishing of Philippine rights, territory or sovereignty, and I can’t imagine that is President Duterte’s intention,” Daniel Russel, the US’s chief diplomat for East Asia, said.

In this context, Duterte’s diatribes against US leaders become more dangerous.

Strained ties with Washington, which has maintained a military presence in the region to check Chinese ambitions, could make it harder for Manila to balance against more assertive Chinese actions in Scarborough and elsewhere. That strain may have already put Duterte in a worse bargaining position.

“Duterte’s bid to downgrade the US alliance,” Gregory Poling, director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,told Business Insider ahead of the visit, will damage the Philippines’ negotiating position when Duterte sits down to talk with China.

“The threat of U.S. intervention is what has prevented more overt Chinese aggression at Second Thomas Shoal or Scarborough Shoal,” Poling added. “Now Duterte is throwing that leverage overboard before he has even gotten into a room with Xi Jinping.”

“If, when President Duterte goes to Beijing for the first time … he really expects to have fruitful negotiations with China on the thorny issues of the South China Sea and try to reach a deal, why is he giving up his only leverage, which is the US treaty commitment?” Poling said on the CSIS podcast earlier this month.

Duterte is slated to meet with Chinese leaders on October 20. What, if any, deals on the South China Sea emerge from that remain to be seen.

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