Duterte’s mission to mend China ties faces opportunities, challenges

By Li Kaisheng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/10/16 20:18:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is like an open book about China: Unlike his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, he has exercised self-restraint over the South China Sea arbitration, which lies at the heart of the tensions between the Philippines and China; After taking office, he has constantly cast verbal attacks on the US, Manila's most important ally, and vowed to mend ties with China. Duterte will embark on his visit to China Tuesday, his first state visit outside ASEAN.

Despite the conciliatory tone, China and the Philippines have not turned over a new leaf. The bone of contentions between both countries are still the South China Sea disputes, over which Duterte calls for flexible solutions but still insists on the result of the arbitration as a foundation of negotiation. China, however, will by no means accept the condition. What does Duterte, known for his flippancy and caprice, really think about China? What else does he want to talk about with China besides the South China Sea disputes? And what will the Sino-Philippine relationship be under the influence of his diplomacy?

Duterte belongs to the center-left in the political spectrum of the Philippines. He is a nationalist and dislikes the US like most other leftists in the Philippines, who still regard the US as imperialistic. One major difference that distinguishes Duterte from his leftist peers is that he is a commercialist, which reflects his pragmatism.

Duterte appreciates what China has been doing to boost economic growth, especially its endeavor to draw foreign investment and build infrastructure. He sees China's value, and expects to nurture closer ties in business and trade, so that the Philippines can gain more benefits from a rising China.

Duterte has realized that his country has got nothing of real benefit from the South China Sea arbitration. He has also argued that if his nation is in a conflict with China, the US will likely opt out. Thus, negotiations are the only way to address the thorny disputes in the South China Sea. His tactic has been further empowered by the fact that the disputes are giving bilateral trade an increasingly hard time.

Unlike Aquino, Duterte prioritizes domestic affairs, which constitute another reason that he wants to thaw tensions with China. He came into office by pledging to get rid of drugs, corruption and poverty. He has walked the talk and will not balk at opposition from outside. In the long term, Duterte has more to deal with, including reducing poverty and inking permanent peace with rebels. A clash with China will obviously obstruct his pursuit of these goals.

However, although Duterte is willing to change, it is very likely that his plan will be held back by other elements both in and out of the Philippines.

Washington will be riled by Manila's "counterproductive" change of diplomacy as it might pose a major threat to US strategy. In the near future, Duterte's dealings might be tolerated by the US because it is in the midst of a dramatic election season, but no one can deny the possibility that if the Philippines goes too far, the US might take advantage of its deeply-rooted influence in the Philippines and attempt regime change.

Japan might also play a role in deterring the Philippines. Duterte has established a close relationship with Tokyo. Under the instruction of the US, Japan might use this leverage to force the Philippines into the normal track as a crucial part of the US-led alliance to balance China's rise.

Besides outside challenges, Duterte's endeavor to renew ties with China might face stubborn deterrence from the opposition, which has its daggers drawn over many Duterte's policies. Risking being accused of "betraying" the Philippines for reconciling with China, Duterte will find party politics also a major stall in his pace to modify his China policy.

Despite the honesty of Duterte's intention to make up with China, where the change will lead bilateral ties hinges on how the multiple parties play their roles in the game. It is hoped that Duterte can use this visit to re-launch positive interactions with China, and make it a good start in his undertaking of rapprochement.

The author is a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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