Duterte’s China charm offensive

by Malcolm Cook / October 10, 2016 / Asia.nikkei.com

Zhao Jianhua, China’s ambassador to the Philippines, may be the happiest man in Metro Manila. In September, he rhapsodized: “The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte himself is largely responsible for this change in the diplomatic weather, in which he clearly hopes to bask during his planned trip to China from Oct. 19. Duterte has pronounced Xi Jinping a “great president” and praised Beijing for its support of his war on drugs. Acknowledging Chinese sensitivities, Duterte also unilaterally declared the end — for the duration of his term — of the annual U.S.-Philippine Balikatanmilitary exercises and planned joint naval patrols in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.

Duterte and Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay have announced new policy positions on the Philippines’ maritime rights and territorial disputes with China that are much more in line with China’s own view of these disputes. The president has stated that Beijing’s expansive and unlawful claims to the majority of the South China Sea and the Philippine exclusive economic zone in this sea were made in “good faith.” The Duterte administration has called for the recommencement of private bilateral talks with China over these disputes and appointed former President Fidel Ramos as the Philippines’ special envoy to China. The administration has not called on the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to take a stand on the July 12 ruling by a Hague tribunal that comprehensively supports the Philippines’ maritime rights claims against China.

Duterte’s China charm offensive has parallels with China’s own wooing of Southeast Asia in the previous decade. China’s “smile diplomacy” was primarily aimed at weakening U.S. primacy in East Asia, which China views as destabilizing, constraining China from reclaiming its natural leading role in the region, and an unwanted legacy of the Cold War era. Duterte’s offensive is in turn focused on weakening the perceived position of the U.S. in the Philippines, one that he sees as destabilizing, constraining the Philippines from achieving full independence, and a colonial legacy. Duterte has called for the eventual removal of U.S. military personnel from the Mindanao island group as a way to facilitate peace talks with the Moro Islamic insurgents.

Yasay, speaking in Washington, explained the president’s call for an independent foreign policy by stating: “We cannot forever be the little brown brothers of America … we have to grow and become the big brother of our own people, of the next generation of Filipinos.”

Regional interests

The desired goals of these respective charm offensives appear similar. Beijing initiated its diplomatic drive to reduce fears of China’s rise in its southern maritime periphery and encourage Southeast Asian states to give more favorable consideration to China’s regional interests in their policy decisions. Duterte seeks to assuage recent Chinese anger with the Philippines and encourage Chinese support and even concessions for his own domestic policy priorities. These include the controversial war on drugs, ambitious infrastructure plans in need of concessional financing, and the easing of Chinese actions against Philippine fishing vessels around the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

It is widely held that China’s charm offensive was replaced early in the current decade by a more aggressive and demanding Chinese approach to Southeast Asian states, ASEAN, and the disputes over the South China Sea. As ASEAN documents have noted, recent land reclamation activities in the South China Sea (predominantly undertaken by China) have eroded trust and confidence. Chinese interlocutors coming to Southeast Asia frequently claim that their country’s efforts to win friends were not reciprocated and hence faded as some regional states, and even ASEAN itself, did not take enough account of Chinese interests and concerns. Duterte’s trip to China will be an early and eagerly watched test of whether China is willing to answer his overtures with greater support for Philippine infrastructure needs and respect of its maritime rights in its exclusive economic zone. Read more…


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