China courts Philippines leader Duterte amid signs of US rift

The Philippines chairperson is visiting China but whether his focus is on build relations or his countrys infrastructure remains to be seen

The Philippines acid-tongued chairman, Rodrigo Duterte, will result a major business delegation to China this week as Beijing attempts to seduce into its orbit one of Americas key regional allies in a potential blow to Barack Obamas pivot to Asia.

Hundreds of Filipino entrepreneurs, including some of the countrys top tycoons, are set to accompany Duterte on his three-day country visit during which he will be received by President Xi Jinping, another strongman leader some call Chinas most powerful since Mao Zedong.

A spokesperson for Chinas foreign ministry said Beijing hoped the visit would help increase political mutual trust, strengthen pragmatic cooperation[ and] extend traditional friendship.

In a recent speech, Beijings ambassador to the Philippines heralded a new sunrise for ties between the two countries.

The clouds are fading away. The sunlight is rising over the horizon, and will glisten beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations, Zhao Jianhua told a reception in Manila.

Chinese chairperson Xi Jinping speaks at the eighth Brics( Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) summit in the western Indian state of Goa on Sunday. Photo: Xinhua/ Barcroft Images

Dutertes mission to China follows a succession of anti-American outbursts from the 71 -year-old, including calling Obama a son of a whore and telling the US president to go to hell.

Those withering statements have led some to conclude Duterte is plotting a historic diplomatic rupture with the Philippines long-standing ally, from which it gained independence in 1946.

At some phase, I will break up with America, Duterte said in a recent speech at a synagogue in Manila. I would rather go to Russia and to China.

Speaking on the eve of Dutertes visit to Beijing, the top US diplomat for east Asia, Daniel Russel, acknowledged Washington was still grappling with the policy implications of the Filipino leaders colorful statements.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies( CSIS) in Washington, said it was too soon to judge whether Dutertes mission represented the start of a new diplomatic epoch in which Manila switched its allegiances to Beijing or was simply an attempt to play the worlds two biggest economies off against each other.

Im not sure anybody is completely clear what is in Dutertes mind, she said.

Even so, Glaser said Beijing would be celebrating how the Philippines leader had publicly spurned the countrys long-term ally.

I believe the Chinese are instead gleeful about the possibility of setting up a loosening of the US-Philippines alliance. The Chinese believe the US has emboldened Manila to challenge China and has been instrumental in pulling the US into South China Sea issues. If China can successful defuse some of the tensions with the Philippines then I think the Chinese hope they can reduce US involvement in the South China Sea.

Nick Bisley, an international relations professor from Melbournes La Trobe University, was of the view that for all the surface-level fireworks surrounding the Philippines chairwoman, he was in fact a pragmatic legislator who would travel to China with clearly defined domestic objectives.

Hes not going into this thinking he is some sort of Kissinger of the south Pacific.

Rather, Duterte was hoping to secure billions of dollars of much-needed investment to address a looming infrastructure crisis. He insures China as a pretty likely source of that.

Dutertes trip-up is the strongest hint yet of a stunning diplomatic volte-face towards China from the Philippines.

In recent years the two countries repeatedly clashed over territory disputes in the South China Sea, with Beijing reacting furiously in 2014 after Dutertes predecessor, Benigno Aquino, compared its activities in the region to Nazi Germanys expansionism.

At what point do you say, Enough is enough? Well, the world has to say it remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent world war two, he told the New York Times.

In July, merely weeks after Dutertes landslide election victory, an international tribunal issued a thorough rebuttal of Chinas territorial asserts in the South China Sea when it ruled on a example originally brought by the Philippines government, in 2013.

But Duterte who has described his trip to China as a key turning point in both our histories has not pressed Beijing over the tribunals ruling, apparently seeking to use that verdict as leverage with which to extract concessions from Beijing.

Last week he informed the countrys navy to halt joint patrols of the South China Sea with the US in order to avoid any Philippine action that China might deem hostile.

In an interview last week with al-Jazeera, Duterte was of the view that during his visit he would fight to maintain islands in the South China Sea.

Nobody is going to give up anything there, he said, adding that under the constitution, a president cannot give away Philippine ground.

But he added that although he would create the Hague tribunal verdict, he could not be forceful. We have this judgment. I can go into a rage because its being occupied … the other[ option] is to talk. What do you think will happen to my country if I choose to go to war? he said. We can only talk.

Experts say Duterte will seek billions of dollars worth of Chinese investment to bankroll projects including as an ambitious network of rail connects.

Francis Chua, the head of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the Inquirer he would seek to reawaken dormant trade ties with Beijing. He said: We expect to have a bounty of business opportunities from this visit, especially with a president willing to explore the limits of a fruitful partnership with China.

Duterte is also expected to press for Filipino fishermen to be allowed to fish all over the Scarborough Shoal, a disputed area in the South China Sea.

Bisley said it was crucial the president could return from China with tangible achievements to present voters.

He needs to have face in this whole thing. He cant come back to the Philippines looking like hes gone on bended knee and hes got all these gifts but is really a Chinese cats paw, he said.

Bisley said he believed Washington had been genuinely surprised by Dutertes actions since taking office but cautioned that a permanent transformation towards Beijing was far from guaranteed.

It is still really early days. Hes three months in and he moves around a lot. It could well lies in the fact that if he feels slighted in Beijing for whatever reason if he feels it doesnt go his way he could easily just come back to Manila and pretend it all hasnt happened and tell everybody how much he loves America. You cant rule that out.

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