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Why should China Embrace the Philippines?
   2016-10-22 15:38:03    CRIENGLISH.com      Web Editor: Zhang Peng

Chinese President Xi Jinping (R) holds talks with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing, capital of China, Oct. 20, 2016.[Photo: Xinhua]

By Xu Qinduo

Thought it's winter, but it's springtime for the relationship between the Philippines and China, said President Rodrigo Duterte when he met Chinese leaders in Beijing. This is his first trip outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, of which Manila is a member.

His four-day trip has been fruitful, landing 13 deals with a value of over 13.5 billions dollars in addition to billions of loans from the Chinese side.His heaped China and relationship with Beijing with praises, which were effusive to a degree of a bit overwhelming. But he seems to be sincere, partly thanks to his ideological closeness to China.


Both Beijing and Washington were shocked when he talked of "separation" from the US and aligning with China and Russia. Then he denied a "severance" of ties with Washington after he returned to the Philippines.

Understandably there're concerns about the speedy changes and enormous warmth from Manila toward Beijing. Some worry the response from the US, which could take advantage of its in-depth involvement in the country's military circle and the elite class to rein in the Duterte government. Or sending more warships to the South China Sea to play gunboat diplomacy expressing his displeasure as it just did. And in another corner, the concern goes like this: what if Manila makes another about-face with Beijing after reaping commercial benefits from China?

First of all, Duterte's gesture of friendship stands for a rare and precious opportunity for China to further erode the relevance of the arbitration from The Hague in July. The arbitration put China into a complete disadvantage. But thanks to successful diplomatic work, ASEAN meetings since then have basically refused to refer to the arbitration and the countries in the region agreed to focus on solutions without the involvement of outside players meaning the US.

During Duterte's visit, Beijing and Manila agreed to handle the disputes through dialogue and consultation, further hardening the bilateral approach while dismissing the arbitration as merely a piece of paper.

President Duterte's re-orientation of his foreign policy - pivoting away from maritime disputes to economy development - serves the interests of ASEAN countries in the region as well as that of China and the Philippines.

The landscape in the South China Sea region was once peaceful and stable until the US initiated the "pivot to Asia strategy" with a focus on new military bases and growing military presence in Asia-Pacific countries to counter the rise of China.So with the detente between Manila and Beijing, the region will hopefully regain peace by re-focusing on economic and trade cooperation instead of simmering tensions.

Secondly, on the so-called unpredictability of President Duterte, it's largely a Western perception - they assumed a continuation of Manila charging in the frontline against China and were unprepared for Duterte's different policy priorities.

For China, the change is unexpected but there's little smacking of unpredictability. On the contrary, Duterte has been consistent in distancing himself from the US. He called US President Barack Obama "son of bitch". He told him to "go to hell". He announced "separation from the US". His economic team also made it clear that Asian economic integration was "long overdue".

As for a possible about-face from Duterte on his China policy, which is unlikely, there isn't much China can do to completely avoid that. But China should not let opportunity slip while Duterte holds the olive twigs. After all, what endures is the railway you built, the investment you did, the people to people bond formed during good times.

Duterte clarified to the Americans that he's only advocating "separation in foreign policy" rather than "a severance of ties" with the US. His office released a statement saying that the President''s comments were "an assertion that we are an independent and sovereign nation, now finding common ground with friendly neighbors with shared aspirations in the spirit of mutual respect, support and cooperation."

Compared with the "separation" talk, the statement is moderate but firm that the Philippines is pursuing more independence from past practice of relying too much on Uncle Sam. In this sense, China should also provide assistance in building railways, bridges, etc, and create jobs for local people. Beijing may also think of offering scholarships for young Filipinos to study in China. Military to military exchanges should be deepened through joint patrols or exercises in the South China Sea. If there's any advantage China has over the US, it's the geographical closeness with Manila. China will never go away, but the US may leave.

Duterte is to be urged not to give up the fight over the maritime disputes as he arrives in Japan very soon. And over the weekend, top US officials will visit Manila to seek more assurance about bilateral ties. Those occasions could test the determination of Duterte to turn a new page in his foreign policy making. But he's right in prioritize economic growth and people's livelihood. For one thing, sticking to the maritime disputes, Manila will reap nothing but tension as it's impossible to fight China.

Duterte is forging a foreign policy of independence by being downright pragmatic in defending the national interests of the Philippines. China, as a rising power, should take the responsibility to extend a hand of help not only for the sake of bilateral relationship but the peace and stability to in the region.

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