Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was heading to China late Tuesday for a visit that was set to upend relations in the region and possibly throw a security challenge to Japan, which he is due to visit next.
The visit promises to end years of estrangement between Beijing and Manila, but elevating China as a security partner at the expense of ties with Washington could also weaken the military relationship Japan relies on.
Until recently, Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping seemed unlikely allies, given the miserable state of ties when Duterte took office. But on Tuesday Chinese state media welcomed the tone that he has adopted in the three months since then.
“A Beijing-Manila detente will be richly rewarding not only on the political and diplomatic fronts,” China’s Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary. “With mutual trust restoring gradually, bilateral exchanges and cooperation in business and other areas will heat up in tandem.”
Duterte is taking to China a 200-strong business delegation. He told Xinhua on Monday he wants funding for infrastructure such as railways and ports.
“If we can have the things you have given to other countries by way of assistance, we’d also like to be a part of it and to be a part of the greater plans of China about the whole of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia,” he said.
Philippine Finance Minister Carlos Dominguez said Saturday that Duterte will request Chinese investment in a new railway linking Manila with rural southern Luzon, power grids and other projects. He said the projects would be worth tens of billions of dollars.
China has been eager to export major infrastructure projects such as nuclear power plants and high-speed railways, undercutting competitors in Japan and elsewhere with softer terms.
On the disputed Scarborough Shoal, the subject of an international tribunal ruling that the Philippine leader has shelved for now, Duterte was considered likely to press for compensation for his fishermen.
Experts suggest this might take the form of marine technology or subsidies to offset their losses.
Duterte is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday.
The Associated Press reported that the Philippine draft of a joint presidential statement touches on boosting tourism, Chinese permits for Philippine farm exports, support for Duterte’s drive against illegal drugs, and greater coast guard cooperation to avoid clashes at sea.
Duterte told Xinhua on Monday that whereas some nations have condemned his blood-soaked crackdown on drug dealers and addicts, China has kept a welcome silence.
“China never criticizes. They just help us quietly,” he said. He has accused the U.S. and European nations of preaching rather than offering assistance in his battle with the narco-threat.
More than 3,000 people have died in shootouts with police or at the hands of suspected vigilante gangs. On Thursday the International Criminal Court put Duterte and other officials on notice for possible crimes against humanity.
But the death toll has had limited impact on Philippine public opinion. A poll released Monday showed an 89 percent approval rating for Duterte’s crime-fighting efforts.
Analysts trying to understand why Duterte has chosen to snub Washington and its 65-year alliance saw clues in his comments Monday to Xinhua.
He spoke of a deep respect for China and its accomplishments, crediting Beijing with “good, sound policies, internal and external” that merit respect.
He also said close ties also make sense because 2 million ethnic Chinese live in the Philippines. He went on to say that he himself had a Chinese grandfather.
The affection is not shared by Filipinos overall. A poll by Philippine research institute Social Weather Stations showed Tuesday that 55 percent have “little trust” in China, versus 11 percent who had doubts about the U.S.
More than three-quarters expressed “much trust” in the U.S. The global Filipino diaspora is heavily represented in the U.S., whereas contacts with China tend to be limited to those who travel on business.
Duterte has said he doubts Washington would meet its obligations to Manila in a crisis. He has pulled the plug on joint military drills, calling them of benefit only to the U.S. and potentially a source of humiliation for the Philippine side. The final round of drills ended last week, hailed by U.S. Marine Corps commanders who took part as a valuable learning session in interoperability.
Meanwhile, Washington continues to show patience with Duterte. The State Department and Department of Defense insist that working relations with Philippine agencies and commanders remain robust.
The reassurances strike some observers as hollow, given the incessant sniping from the other side.
Information from Reuters added