Here’s Why Rodrigo Duterte Could Be Making a High-Profile Visit to China

By Charlie Campbell / October 18, 2016 / Time

The Philippine President’s diplomatic overtures to Beijing are a cause of concern for Washington

Fiery bluster or a genuine shift in allegiance? That’s the question U.S. officials will be trying to answer about Rodrigo Duterte’s diplomatic maneuvers when the Philippine President lands in Beijing on Tuesday, having vowed to sever his nation’s historic alliance with Washington and instead move closer to rival superpower China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will, in turn, be trying to assess whether the erratic Duterte — whose savage extrajudicial war on drugs has so far claimed at least 3,600 lives, and who openly brags about womanizing — can be relied upon. Nevertheless, both these very different leaders have expressed hope of coming to an agreement over the South China Sea, where their nations have been at loggerheads over disputed territory.

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, was among the most tenacious in standing up to China in this regard, even filing a complaint against Beijing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. (The court ruled emphatically in Manila’s favor.) Duterte, by contrast, has vowed to cooperate with China, advocating joint exploration of natural resources under the reefs. In recent weeks, he’s also threatened to expel U.S. Special Forces from Mindanao, to suspend all joint U.S. military exercises and patrols, and even to abrogate the U.S. Advanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by Aquino.

“Only China can help us,” Duterte told Chinese state news wire Xinhua prior to his arrival in Beijing.

All this is extremely worrying for Washington. The South China Sea is a vital trade corridor through which $5.3 trillion of cargo passes annually (around a fifth of which is American). The U.S. Navy has been ramping up freedom of navigation exercises in response to China’s militarizing of islets in the waterway, though would be severely hamstrung without the cooperation of vested parties like the Philippines, which is a U.S. defense treaty ally.

“The U.S. has been hoping that Duterte’s rash talk will not be translated into action,” says Jonah Blank, a Southeast Asia expert at the Rand Corp.

There is no doubting that Duterte has a distinct antipathy toward the U.S., emboldened by recent criticism of his “war on drugs,” a wave of violence that has gripped the Philippine streets since he came to office in June. Duterte is also supposedly a socialist who has repeatedly chaffed against the American presence in his homeland and who banned American drones from Davao Airport during his time as mayor.

“This guy genuinely believes that the U.S. is an empire that is interfering in the affairs of third-world countries like the Philippines,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University.

However, there are plenty of reasons why a wholesale shift in alliances is unlikely. The first is public opinion. Last year’s Pew survey found 92% of Filipinos had a favorable view of the U.S. — the world’s highest rating, even higher than that of Americans themselves. By contrast, 58% of Filipinosview China unfavorably. “And the Philippine security establishment is even more pro-American,” says Heydarian.

That’s because some three-quarters of Philippine military equipment comes from the U.S. While Duterte has repeatedly railed against Washington, even calling U.S. President Barack Obama “a son of a whore” and telling him to “go to hell” for criticizing the war on drugs, key Cabinet members have been quick to pledge their continuing support.

“Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, just like that?” asked former President Fidel Ramos, a key Duterte adviser and his recently appointed special envoy to China, in an Oct. 8 editorial in the Manila Bulletin. Read more…


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