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Asia

Will Duterte's China gamble pay off?

Since he became Philippine president, Duterte has adopted a conciliatory tone towards China and attempted to recalibrate Manila's strained ties with the Asian giant. He is now in Beijing to give a fillip to his efforts.

The Philippines' brash and unconventional leader is on a four-day state visit to China, where he will be holding talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, PM Li Keqiang and a host of other high-ranking officials.

The choice of China as the destination for Duterte's first presidential trip outside the Southeast Asian region reflects the president's efforts to forge closer relations with Beijing.

Since taking office at the end of June this year, Duterte has appeared to realign the Philippines' longstanding strategic partnership with its former colonial power and mutual defense ally, the United States.

As part of these moves, he has declared that the annual joint drills between the two countries' militaries would not take place from next year.

Duterte has also expressed a desire to "break up" his nation's reliance on Washington and move closer to China and Russia, which includes buying weapons from these two countries. Furthermore, the outspoken Philippine leader has lashed out at US President Barack Obama, calling him a "son of a whore" and telling him he can "go to hell."

Talking to China's official Xinhua news agency ahead of his visit to Beijing, Duterte thanked China for not criticizing his campaign against drugs and crime in the Philippines, which is reported to have resulted in over 3,000 deaths over the past three months. "Some other countries know we are short of money, (but) instead of helping us, all they had to do was just to criticize. China never criticizes. They help us quietly, and I said that's why it's part of the sincerity of the people."

Economic interests

Saying that his own grandfather was Chinese, Duterte stressed during the interview that "only China can help us" when it comes to Philippines' development.

While the Philippine economy has outperformed those of other countries in the region in recent years, it has still been hamstrung by the nation's inadequate and shabby infrastructure. Many lament that the decrepit airports, roads, railways and other critical infrastructure have been a drag on economic development.

Duterte views China as a source of funding for much-needed infrastructure development. And the Philippine leader's entourage in Beijing comprises of hundreds of business executives from his country, and media reports suggest that deals worth billions of dollars could be inked during the visit.

The Philippine side has wide-ranging expectations from this visit, says Benedikt Seemann, head of Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Manila. "They want to sign bilateral agreements on trade and investment," he told DW, pointing out that Duterte had already announced his intention to relax the country's strict rules for foreign investment.

The verdict

Duterte also told Xinhua that he preferred to resolve his country's South China Sea (SCS) territorial dispute with Beijing through negotiation, rather than confrontation.

Relations between the two countries deteriorated under Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino, who took an assertive stance against China's territorial ambitions in the SCS, a vital waterway through which an estimated $5 trillion in maritime trade passes every year.

Aquino's administration also approached the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague to challenge Beijing's expansive claims in the SCS, underpinned by its "nine-dash line," a boundary that is estimated to envelope as much as 90 percent of the sea.

The UN-backed tribunal invalidated China's assertions and ruled that they had no legal basis, thus handing a major victory to Manila. Beijing, however, refused to accept the verdict.

Nevertheless, since he took over as president, Duterte has stated that he doesn't want to use the Hague court's ruling to pressure Beijing. Moreover, he has seemed to show an inclination to deal with the SCS issue bilaterally. "We are not interested in allowing other country to talk. I just want to talk to China," he was quoted by Xinhua as saying.

'A new beginning'

Meanwhile, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi underlined on Tuesday, October 18, that no "foreign force" could impede progress in Sino-Philippine relations.

Praising Duterte wants to work to improve ties and return to "the track of dialogue and cooperation," Wang said: "This will be a historic visit and a new beginning in China-Philippines relations."

Still, a new survey conducted by the Social Weather Stations, a Manila-based polling body, showed that many Filipinos view China with suspicion. According to the poll, 55 percent of Filipinos regard China with "little trust," while only 22 percent repose "much trust" on the country. And 19 percent are undecided.

At the same time, the US is viewed more positively, with 76 percent of Filipinos having "much trust" in the country.

Against this backdrop, many in the Philippines have reservations with Duterte's seemingly anti-US foreign policy tilt. Yet, the president currently enjoys massive popularity among the public which grants him significant leeway in all policy areas.

No concessions

For the US, meanwhile, the relationship with the Philippines is a key component of the Obama administration's "pivot to Asia" or a rebalancing of US foreign policy goals to the region.

And Duterte's incendiary rhetoric over the US, if translated into action, would have far-reaching implications for Washington, say experts.

No one knows what exactly Duterte's intentions are, says Gregory Poling, Director of the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). "And this is a big part of the problem. Alliance management thrives on consistency, which is desperately lacking under Duterte," he told DW.

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Duterte's alternative strategy "seems to hinge on hoping that China will cut a fair deal in the South China Sea - but there has been no indication that Beijing is actually willing to negotiate any of the core issues in the South China Sea," said Poling. 

Domestic pressure is also growing on Duterte not to compromise on his country's territorial claims. Philippine Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio recently warned that Duterte could be impeached if he gives up the nation's sovereignty over the Scarborough, according to Philippine media.

In this context, neither China nor the Philippines will make any concessions regarding their territorial claims over the Scarborough Shoal, Shi Yinhong, a professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing, told DW. The shoal - claimed by Beijing as Huangyan Island and by Manila as Panatag - was wrested by China from the Philippines in 2012.

Shi, however, said it's possible that Beijing gives conditional access to Philippine fishermen to waters around the shoal. "Overall, China would like to defuse tensions with the Philippines by promising economic support to the country," he noted.

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