Beijing — Having signaled for weeks his intent to wrest control of his country’s future away from the West, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte officially pivoted toward China this week, saying it’s “only China that can help us” in the effort to make the Philippines a regional player.
President Duterte, at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping, began a four-day visit to China on Tuesday. Last week, over 200 Filipino business leaders are accompanying him on his trip, all “eager to talk with Chinese business leaders and government officials about deals in a range of sectors.”
In comments made to China’s state-run newspaper, Xinhua, and published Monday, Duterte affirmed this attitude, saying:
“All that I would need to do is just to talk and get a firm handshake from the officials and say that we are Filipinos and we are ready to cooperate with you, to help us in building our economy and building our country.”
Praising China’s “good, sound policies, internal and external,” Duterte said the country has earned its international standing as a world superpower.
“I would say that China deserves the kind of respect that China now enjoys,” he said.
On that front, the president made it clear where he sees the future of the Philippines — and, indeed, the entire region — is headed. Duterte also seems to recognize his role in that future and, given the proper incentive, is more than happy to play it.
“If we can have the things you have given to other countries by the way of assistance,” Duterte said, “we’d also like to be a part of it and to be a part of the greater plans of China about the whole of Asia, particularly Southeast Asia.”
This all seems fine to China. In comments made Tuesday at a press briefing, a spokesperson for China’s Commerce Ministry said of President Duterte’s four-day trip:
“China looks forward to Philippine President Duterte’s visit, further consolidating and strengthening bilateral trade relations, and continuously elevating the scope of bilateral cooperation to bring more practical benefits to both peoples and countries.”
But perhaps the strongest evidence of the Philippines’ shift away from the West and toward China lies in the issue of the South China Sea.
China, who was in a territorial dispute with the Philippines over rights to those waters, lost a case at the U.N. earlier this year, which negated its claim of sovereignty. China refused to adhere to the ruling, however, and tensions — including those with the United States, who inserted itself into the disagreement — have steadily risen since.
Until now, that is, as it appears China — as part of the new alliance — is about to grant Filipino fishermen access to the South China Sea.
“China will consider giving Filipino fishermen conditional access to disputed waters in the South China Sea after the presidents of the two countries meet in Beijing this week,” Reuters reported Tuesday, citing “Chinese sources with ties to the leadership.”
This is great news for President Duterte, who says the territorial dispute is over.
“There is no sense in going to war,” he told Xinhua. “There is no sense fighting over a body of water. It is better to talk than war. We want to talk about friendship, we want to talk about cooperation, and most of all, we want to talk about business. War would lead us nowhere.”
Indeed, on the issue of the South China Sea, Duterte made it known with whom he wishes to deal, saying “I just want to talk with China.”
And China, according to Xinhua, is quite ready to talk with Duterte:
“Should he demonstrate his good faith, the trip will present a long overdue opportunity for the two nations, which enjoy longstanding friendship, to heal the wounds of the past few years and steer their relationship back to the right course.”