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Duterte cozies up to Beijing

Frank Sieren
October 23, 2016

On his first trip to Beijing, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte was not concerned with global politics but with improving infrastructure in his country. He had to get straight to the point, says DW's Frank Sieren.

China Peking Staatsbesuch Duterte Philippinen
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/Ng Han Guan

While most newly-elected presidents in the Philippines have tended to go to the US first - to show loyalty to their longtime ally - Rodrigo Duterte chose another path. He went to China, a country with which the Philippines has conducted a bitter maritime dispute for years - on the invitation of his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. It was the first time that an official visit by a Philippine president had aroused so much global interest. For it was the outcome of this trip which would decide whether the dispute between the two countries, a major hurdle in Asian politics, would be resolved.

The US would lose out in this case. Duterte has attacked Washington over and over again in recent months and insulted President Barack Obama, who then cancelled a trip.

Ahead of his visit to China, Duterte announced that he would stop conducting joint military maneuvers with the US but was willing to hold them with Russia and China.

In China he went even further and created shockwaves when he said: "I announce my separation from the United States, both in military, but economics also."

He later clarified that he would not "cut ties" with the US but his statement leaves no doubt as to where his intentions lie. The Philippines' foreign minister reassured Washington Saturday that the US remains the country's "closest friend."

It would have been more tactical for Duterte to try to negotiate the best deal for his country with both China and the US.

Developing infrastructure

However, Duterte is not very tactical. It seems that he thinks it is better for him and his country to get straight to the point, which is improving infrastructure in the Philippines.

DW's Frank SierenImage: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Tirl

This is why he is willing to lay to rest the maritime dispute over islands in the South China Sea. In July, the Philippines won an arbitration case versus China in The Hague over the islands that Duterte's predecessor had initiated with US support.

Duterte, however, is not interested in the case and prefers to move on so as to improve relations with China.

He is not interested in foreign policy, let alone global politics. His language - clear, simple and even vulgar - is not addressed at foreign policy experts but at the people in his country. He will only curry favor by promising security and economic growth, whether Obama likes it or not. This is why he took some 250 business representatives with him to China, so the two countries could discuss how to develop their ties as quickly as possible.

Aid from the development bank

Duterte's trade minister Ramon Lopez was expecting the 71-year-old president's visit to bring in $3 billion (275 billion euros) in loans and subsidies - a lot of money for a country in which over a quarter of the 100 million inhabitants live below the poverty line.

Duterte came with clear ideas. He wants Chinese support to build a rail network in his home province of Mindanao, as well as a rail line from there to the capital Manila. The Philippines ministry of transport has rail projects worth $20 million in the pipeline.

Duterte was hoping to receive money from China's "One Belt, One Road" investment pot. China intends to invest $1.2 billion into infrastructure projects via its Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank, which despite US opposition already had 57 member states by the end of last year.

Duterte would also like the Philippines to become a member.

Developing trade relations

The idea is also to develop bilateral trade. Since last year, China has been the Philippines' second-largest trade partner but Beijing would like to be the first. Manila has nothing against this.

However, it remains to be seen how the friendship between the impulsive president and the rather reserved political caste in Beijing develops. Patience is not Duterte's forte - he will hopefully not act like a spoiled child if he does not immediately get the toys that he wants.

DW's Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.

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