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Philippine Leader Rodrigo Duterte Rolls Dice With Embrace of China

Philippine Leader Rodrigo Duterte Rolls Dice With Embrace of China

Visiting Beijing this week, president gambles that turning away from U.S. can reset Southeast Asia’s strategic calculus in his country’s favor

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President Rodrigo Duterte, right, shook hands with Filipinos living in Brunei after arriving there on Sunday before he heads to China.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES


MANILA—President Rodrigo Duterte aims to upend the delicate geopolitics of the South China Sea during a state visit to Beijing this week, gambling that pulling away from the U.S.—the Philippines’ longtime military ally—will reset the strategic calculus in Southeast Asia in his poor country’s favor.

China and the Philippines have been at loggerheads since 2012 when Beijing took control of Scarborough Shoal, a rich fishing area in the South China Sea, 125 miles west of the former U.S. Navy base at Subic Bay.

That unilateral move had the effect of binding the Philippines even closer to the U.S.; the two signed a new agreement in 2014 giving U.S. forces greater access to bases close to potential flashpoints in the region.

But the 71-year-old Mr. Duterte, a populist in office just over 100 days, has thrown that longstanding relationship into question, striking a blow to American prestige and potentially undercutting U.S.-led efforts to check Chinese domination in the Asia-Pacific region.


​Before departing Sunday for Brunei—where he is spending two days before traveling to Beijing—Mr. Duterte told reporters in Davao that he wouldn’t bargain away Philippine sovereignty over the South China Sea.

He said he would raise the issue of the territorial dispute and an international tribunal’s ruling against Beijing with Chinese officials, but didn’t make clear if he would do so on this particular trip. Mr. Duterte had previously said he would avoid the sensitive subject this week to avoid alienating the Chinese leadership.

On Oct. 10, he said he planned to ask China to allow Filipino fishermen to return to fishing grounds around Scarborough Shoal.

The international tribunal ruled in July, in a case brought by the previous government in Manila, that the disputed area sits squarely within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Beijing, which has refused to recognize that decision, has made little effort to conceal its delight over the nascent rapprochement with Manila.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Friday that China hoped for “normal relations on the basis of equality and mutual respect.” He didn’t go into specifics about the four-day visit, which starts on Tuesday.

Asked directly on Sept. 27 about whether China would discuss fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal, Mr. Geng said: “High-level exchanges between the two countries are of great significance to enhancing mutual understanding, mutual trust and improving ties.”

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Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang, left, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte linked arms during a meeting in Vientiane, Laos, last month. PHOTO: BULIT MARQUEZ/ASSOCIATED PRESS

China’s ambassador to Manila, Zhao Jianhua, was more poetic this month. “The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations,” he gushed.

Mr. Duterte’s gambit is strategically risky, Western diplomats in Manila and analysts said, as he puts his country’s alliance with the U.S. on the line to pursue an untested relationship with a government that Manila saw until very recently as its chief security threat.

“It’s a strange negotiating tactic,” said Gregory Poling of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a U.S. think tank. Mr. Duterte is “unilaterally abandoning the only leverage he has over Beijing—the U.S. security umbrella.”

An official at the U.S. Embassy in Manila said: “We will continue to honor our alliance commitments and treaty obligations and expect the Philippines to do the same.”

Zhang Baohui, a professor at Lingnan University in Hong Kong, said that for Beijing, “the strategic payoffs will be huge” if Manila pulls away from Washington, noting that Mr. Duterte is being honored with a full state visit.

He predicted Beijing would make a small concession on fishing rights to seize a “golden opportunity to reorient the entire South China Sea situation” and bring about “the collapse of a vital pillar of the U.S. South China Sea strategy,” Mr. Zhang said.

Interactive: The South China Sea Dispute

The economic rationale behind Mr. Duterte’s Chinese strategy is understandable: He wants Chinese funding and technical expertise to build desperately needed infrastructure. Mr. Duterte has said he wants Beijing to build new railways on Luzon and Mindanao islands. He also said Beijing has offered him a 25-year loan on easy terms to fund arms purchases, although he gave no details and China hasn’t commented.

China has largely spurned the Philippines over the past few years, even as it pledged investments of tens of billions of dollars for other Asian countries as part of its “Belt and Road” regional infrastructure program.

In 2014, Beijing warned Chinese tourists to steer clear of the Philippines, which it said was too dangerous to visit. It has also blocked imports of Philippine bananas, a $1 billion a year industry here, by some companies since 2012. A quarter of the crop normally goes to China.

The banana ban was reversed this month as the fence-mending process gathered pace. Mr. Zhao, the ambassador, said Friday that Beijing would also remove its travel advisory against the Philippines during Mr. Duterte’s visit.

Mr. Duterte was elected on an anticrime platform, promising to extend nationwide the bloody campaign he waged against drug gangs as mayor of Davao City. For weeks he has lashed out with profanities at U.S. and other Western critics of his bloody campaign against suspected drug dealers, while also berating Washington for its supposed failures as an ally.

In Manila, diplomats privately expressed dismay and outrage at Mr. Duterte’s claim that billions in American and European aid amounted to mere “crumbs” that insulted the Filipino people, even as he heaped praise on China for its generosity in helping to build a single drug-rehabilitation center north of the capital.

While in Beijing, Mr. Duterte plans to visit “activities related to anti-drugs,” amid talks on bilateral cooperation in drug-control efforts, according to the Chinese Foreign Ministry.

Western officials noted that unlike Washington, Beijing won’t criticize Mr. Duterte’s human-rights record.

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