‘The ice is melting’
That’s how Xu Liping, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences quoted by the Chinese daily, Global Times, described in a nutshell President Rodrigo Duterte’s 4-day state visit to China.
He could have been pointing to the fruits of the rapprochement with China: In terms of investments and credit facilities, well worth $24 billion covering investments in agriculture, renewable energy, tourism, food, manufacturing, telecommunications and infrastructure. Since the commitment would translate to two million jobs over a period of five years, the entente with China at the initial stage cannot be sneezed at. To this economic tote is added the easing of tourism and importation restrictions that could spell a lot of moolah for the Philippines.
But it is in the way Chinese mainstream media tries to downplay President Duterte’s clarification of a provocative statement he made while in China that is keeping Western diplomatic circles and observers at the edge of their seats.
Wednesday last week, President Duterte told the Filipino community in Beijing that it was time to say “goodbye” to the United States. He followed this up with more anti-US rhetoric Thursday night before business executives in the Chinese capital wherein he called for a military and economic “separation” from Washington. From now on, “It’s the Philippines, Russia and China against the world,” President Duterte declared.
But hardly had the China pivot completed its full turn when President Digong clarified upon his return that the “separation” from the US that he announced while in Beijing did not mean severing of diplomatic and economic ties with its traditional treaty ally. According to Digong, he meant to say that Philippine foreign policy “should not dovetail” that of the US’.
If this “turnaround” created a furor in Manila, some quarters in China were actually peeved. The Global Times reported that “some Chinese claimed that Duterte changed his attitude immediately after he got loans from China, and they even made jokes mocking his inconsistency.”
There are plenty of Tagalog and Visayan translations and interpretations to this particular perception, like “nawong og kuwarta” in Cebuano or “mukhang pera” in Tagalog (both literally meaning “face like money,” or money greedy).
Instead of riding on the negative views, the Global Times came to his defense in an editorial (“Did Duterte Go Back On His Words After Beijing Visit?” October 24, 2016): “Whatever wording Duterte used in China to comment on the past Washington-Manila ties, Chinese diplomats don’t expect that the Philippines under his presidency will take any radical turns in its relationship with the US, such as terminating their alliance or closing down US bases.”
“By refusing to ‘dovetail’ the US foreign policy, Duterte has again demonstrated the new foreign policy of the Philippines,” part of the editorial read.
The Global Times is an affiliate of People’s Daily, the biggest media organization in China. GT, according to the web resource, is focused on international issues with a Communist perspective.
On statements issued by Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay that the US remains the “closest friend” of the PH “but Manila wants to break away from a mindset of dependency and subservience and closer ties with other nations,” GT said that combined with the comments of Duterte, they “cement the significant changes that he has brought to the geopolitical landscape in the South China Sea, but don’t indicate any return to the previous diplomacy of former president Benigno Aquino III.”
As if addressing Western observers, GT commented: “Few Western reports talked about the improving Beijing-Manila ties. After all, Duterte is so different a president, and he likes to use sharp or somewhat exaggerated words to attract more attention. But so far he has shown clear and firm policy logic.”
“It is those whose expectations are too high of the new PH President that believe Duterte went back on his words after his Beijing visit. Some others would rather see the rumors come true because they desire to prove that the Chinese government makes foolish choices.”
Digong has described the Philippines pivot to China as one that defines his presidency and he was not being fulsome for no reason. From this layman’s point of view, it is China’s defense of Duterte, more than its economic commitment, that makes the Manila-Beijing entente more dramatic than it already is.
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