Duterte’s ‘about-face’ unsettles Xi

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA / October 28, 2016 / Nikkei Asian Review

TOKYO — After what was described as a “milestone” visit to Beijing by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, you could be forgiven for thinking Chinese leader Xi Jinping will be feeling more than a little triumphant — not least as the Philippine leader went so far as to declare an economic and military “separation” from the U.S. during the visit.

But comments from the capricious Philippine leader soon after he returned to Manila may have left doubts in Xi’s mind.

 Duterte made the four-day visit to China from Oct. 18. He chose China for his first overseas trip outside the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. It was also the first official visit to China by a Philippine president in five years.

Duterte’s talk of “separation from the U.S.” came at a time when China and the U.S. remain split over many issues, not least disputes in the South China Sea.

‘Fraud’

The internet was not slow to react to Duterte’s volte face, and the word “fraud” has gone viral. One social media post read, “Duterte changed his face as soon as he returned to the Philippines after securing money from China.”

The reference was to the traditional Chinese art of “face changing,” where performers go from one character to the next by swapping masks in a Beijing opera or during a banquet. Many feel it was not the mask that was changed so much as a complete change of heart.

Other online posts put it in less uncertain terms, “China got dumped. China was deceived,” read one. Another said, “It is a divorce in disguise [from the U.S.] for the sake of borrowing [from China]. That’s not uncommon in China.”

Some of the more pointed posts have been deleted by the Chinese authorities.

Why all the fuss?

Needless to say, Duterte’s remarks about relations with the U.S. have drawn criticism at home and from Washington.

However, it did not take very long for a change of tune once he got home. Unapologetic and unashamed, he tried to explain away the remarks, claiming he really meant “a separation from a subservient foreign policy to the U.S.,” and that ties with Washington would not change at all.

The backtracking on the future of relations with a long-standing ally has sparked heated debate among Chinese netizens. Duterte has been likened to U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. They are both known to shoot from the hip, but quickly switch to a different tune when their comments come under fire.

Duterte has drawn the ire of the international community for his bloody war on drugs, which has been linked to thousands of extrajudicial killings. But the man some call “the Punisher” is happy to turn a deaf ear as he enjoys huge domestic popularity.

In Beijing, Duterte appears to have found a strong ally for his signature campaign. China has offered to provide significant amounts of aid to help in his fight against drugs. Read more…

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