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International relations

US-China showdown heads to Philippines after clash at APEC

Xi to bring billions worth of deals to Manila as Duterte also woos Washington

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in 2017. Xi is expected to bring Belt and Road investment gifts to Manila this week.   © Reuters

MANILA -- The deepening U.S.-China rivalry, which last week dominated two regional summits, now moves to the Philippines, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to make a state visit on Tuesday.

Bloodied by diplomatic sparring with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during APEC meetings in the Papua New Guinean capital over the weekend, Xi is set to flex China's muscle in Manila, becoming the first Chinese leader to make a state visit there in 13 years.

On Tuesday, Xi and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte are expected to sign billions of dollars worth of Belt and Road deals. The China-funded projects include railways, roads and dams. Xi will also bring with him a $2 billion investment that the U.S. could interpret as a major coup for its rival. China Gezhouba Group is promising to spend the money in Clark, a former U.S. military air base that Duterte wants made into a modern city.

The base was closed in the early 1990s. More recently, Manila has been complaining about a lack of U.S. corporate interest in Clark.

The announcements of the deals will come days after Pence warned about "strings attached" to China-funded projects. The vice president added that the U.S. "offers a better option" -- a $60 billion infrastructure investment scheme centered on the Indo-Pacific region.

"We don't drown our partners in a sea of debt," said Pence, standing in for President Donald Trump at the 2018 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. "We don't coerce or compromise your independence. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road."

They were some of the most pointed statements as U.S. and Chinese officials last week escalated their war of words over regional security and global trade, first in Singapore at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit. Wrangling between the two powers overshadowed both events, intended to bolster regional cooperation and economic integration.

In 2015, Xi made his way to the Philippine capital to attend that year's APEC summit, but former President Benigno Aquino gave him the cold shoulder amid a territorial dispute in the South China Sea. President Rodrigo Duterte, however, is expected to roll out the red carpet for Xi.

As Duterte continues to woo Xi, his ties with the U.S. have recently improved. Last week, the U.S. announced it will return the Balangiga bells.

The bells -- used by Filipino guerrillas to signal the attack on American colonizers -- are a reminder of the infamous 1901 massacre at the height of the Philippine-American war where guerrillas killed some 48 U.S. soldiers in Balangiga, a town in Samar in the central Philippines. In retaliation, Gen. Jacob Smith ordered to kill town residents aged 10 and above and to decimate the town to a "howling wilderness." Balangiga's church bells were taken as booty.

Duterte has repeatedly demanded the bells' return, and Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr last week raised the possibility of Duterte finally heeding Trump's invitation to visit the U.S. following the turnover of the bells.

Economic relations between the Philippines and the U.S. are also being upgraded. In late October, Manila and Washington announced they had resolved key issues vital for free trade talks to move forward.

The increasing bitterness between China and the U.S. has alarmed some nations. "The circumstances may come where ASEAN will have to choose one or the other," said Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who chaired the ASEAN summit. "I hope it does not happen soon."

Duterte is not the only leader being forced to perform a balancing act, but perhaps his is especially delicate. Hoping to strike a joint exploration deal with Beijing regarding the South China Sea, Duterte in Singapore said the "reality" is that the disputed waterway is "already in China's possession." The president's domestic critics have since slammed these words as weakening Manila's claims.

Duterte's finance secretary, Carlos Dominguez, called the Philippines' Belt and Road-tied deals a "win-win-win" for all. "But again, with those remarks [from Pence]," he said on Sunday, "we will certainly review [them]."

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