Could It be the Turning Point? President Duterte’s meeting with President Xi

By Ivy Ganadillo / October 18, 2016 / This article appeared in the Manila Bulletin print edition

The long history of Philippine-China relations is put to the test when the tensions in the South China Sea started to escalate in the recent years. President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit this October hopes to resume the needed high-level dialogues between the two countries. The anticipated cordial talk between the two leaders could result in more than what meets the eye.

President Duterte’s willingness to engage in bilateral talks with China hopes to bring win-win cooperation. In addition, the role of the Philippines as ASEAN chairman in 2017 is another opportunity and leverage to affect the regional relations toward the matters of the South China Sea.

Despite the tough talks that President Duterte utters with its relations with other countries, the new faces in his administration give optimism for the future of the Philippines foreign policy towards China. The appointments of former President Fidel Ramos, as special envoy to China, and Mr. Chito Sta. Romana, as new Philippines ambassador to China, could lead to lowering of the tensions and gradually address the differences between the two countries.

The meeting is an opportunity for President Duterte to echo and formalize the proposals on possible areas of cooperation identified during the exploratory talks made by former President Ramos in Hong Kong with Madam Fu Ying, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress. The proposals are on marine preservation, fishing cooperation, anti-drug and anti-smuggling cooperation, anti-crime and anti-corruption cooperation, tourism, trade and investment and track II exchanges. They have stressed how “building trust is very important to the long-term beneficial relationship between the Philippines and China.”

Mistrust between the two countries has been the biggest challenge in resolving its conflicts. It is imperative that both could work together as neighbors on matters of mutual interests and benefits. Fishing in the Scarborough Shoal is a hot button among its citizens, especially after the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration. The Filipinos are expecting that the Philippine fishermen will have access to this considered common fishing ground after his visit. If this happens, this can be considered a breakthrough and a signal for further advancement of understanding and cooperation between China and the Philippines.

Moreover, the Philippines-China relations do not revolve only around the issue of the South China Sea. The big delegation of the Philippines to China includes a number of Filipino businessmen who aim to boost further economic ties. The Philippines Finance Secretary, Carlos Dominguez, is also optimistic that the visit will bring more infrastructure program to the country. As China eagerly promotes its “One Belt, One Road Initiative”, President Duterte could further explore how this can help meets his campaign promises of enhancing bilateral trades, boosting tourism, raising employment, and alleviating poverty.  In addition, the importance of people-to-people relations is another facet that could be touched in the visit. President Duterte is expected to meet the Filipino community in Beijing. This could further foster and lead to explore the positive impacts of the existing harmonious relationships among its citizens.

Reality as it is, the visit is just a piece of the puzzle of the Philippines in extending an olive branch to its neighbor. The meeting could shed light on President Duterte’s unpredictable remarks on its foreign policy toward China vis-à-vis President Xi policies towards the Philippines. Countries in the region and the US are definitely watching the turnout of this important event.

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