October 28, 2016 8:00 pm JST
China up close

Duterte's 'about-face' unsettles Xi

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Chinese President Xi Jinping, right, met with his Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte in Beijing on Oct. 20.

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.

Ulterior motives

Both presidents may well have ulterior motives for moving to repair relations, which have been strained by the South China Sea dispute.

While Xi wants to extract concessions over the issue and fend off international criticism, Duterte wants to secure increased aid from the world's second-largest economy.

Many were left wondering just how much aid was offered this time. Philippine Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, who accompanied Duterte to Beijing, disclosed that infrastructure development and other economic cooperation deals reached between the two countries are worth as much as $24 billion.

China is already providing larger amounts of aid, loans and deals to Indonesia and Malaysia. But the $24 billion pledged to Duterte is seen as extremely generous, given that Manila now appears to just be paying lip service.

China suffered a humiliating diplomatic setback in July, when a Permanent Court of Arbitration tribunal rejected Beijing's claims in the South China Sea in a case brought by the Philippines. China has since tried to regain lost diplomatic ground.

At their Oct. 20 meeting, Xi and Duterte seemed to be pushing the matter aside in many ways. A joint statement was issued the following day calling for territorial disputes to be resolved through talks between countries directly concerned, without direct reference to the tribunal's ruling.

But if the meeting fails to improve China's international standing, Xi and the foreign ministry will inevitably bear the brunt of criticism at home.

The Chinese government has not officially announced any figures on the latest aid package for the Philippines. Some observers say it fears a possible backlash from a disgruntled public amid the country's economic slowdown. In any case, it remains to be seen if Xi will be able to realize his objectives through improved relations with the Philippines.

Dark humor

The "fraud" tag that went viral has not gone unnoticed by state media. The Global Times, a paper affiliated with the party's official People's Daily, is a good example. 

The paper, which focuses on international issues, took up the issue in a commentary piece and introduced a little dark humor. The joke goes something like this:

China demanded Duterte say, "The South China Sea belongs to China," and each character is worth to $100 million in aid (the sentence is written using six Chinese characters). Duterte replies, "OK, how about, 'The South China Sea belongs to the People's Republic of China?'"

The latter expression would require 16 characters.

It was widely seen that the joke was intended to stoke sense of crisis that China was being played by the Philippines.

The commentary said the "fraud" tag, as represented by this joke, shows a lack of understanding of international politics. It also defended Duterte, claiming that he neither flatters nor lacks consistency in decision making. Clearly, state media was at pains to save face for Xi.

Moment of truth

The Beijing summit came at a time when Xi faced a moment of truth in domestic politics, coming just a few days before the Communist Party kicked off the sixth plenary session of its central committee. The plenary session is widely seen as a prelude to a tug-of-war between Xi and his opponents o ver the lineup of a new leadership team to be chosen at the next national congress in the autumn of 2017.

At first glance, Duterte appeared disrespectful or even rude when pictured with Xi. But his appearance and big mouth mask may have masked some very shrewd political calculation. 

If the Philippine president took advantage of the timing, then he can claim to have gained the upper hand in diplomatic horse-trading.

On Oct. 25, just three days after returning, Duterte arrived in Japan. Despite repeated requests from Tokyo, he made China his first stop outside ASEAN.

Having served as mayor of Davao for many years, Duterte is well aware of Japan's economic assistance for the Philippines. The country also holds huge importance for Tokyo for security reasons.

The talks with Japanese leader Shinzo Abe on Oct. 26 show Duterte may have positioned himself between Japan and China more deftly than many have given him credit for.

 

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