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Duterte visit watched for shift to China

03:51 AM October 20, 2016

BEIJING—Talks this week between President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be closely scrutinized for signs of how seriously the new Philippine leader intends to pursue a shift away from Washington and toward Beijing, a move that could have a major impact on regional power dynamics.

Mr. Duterte’s elevation to the presidency three and a half months ago has already turned relations between Washington and Manila on their head.

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His courtship of Beijing could create further disruptions given the prospect of a longstanding US treaty ally lining up with Washington’s key rival for influence in Asia.

Mr. Duterte was greeted by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on arrival at Beijing’s main airport on Tuesday evening. He was set to meet on Thursday with Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and third-ranking official Zhang Dejiang, the head of the legislature.

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“This is a historic visit and presents an opportunity for relations between China and the Philippines to restart on a fresh, more positive footing,” Wang told reporters earlier on Tuesday.

Mr. Duterte was due to return home on Friday.

US ‘pivot’ to Asia

Under Mr. Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the decades-old US-Philippine alliance had flourished.

A quarter-century after a wave of anti-US nationalism forced the closure of American military bases in the Philippines, Manila was poised to allow more access for US forces to counter an assertive China—an important boost for President Barack Obama’s “pivot” placing more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific region.

Those gains now hang in the balance, although the Obama administration says it would welcome a reduction in the China-Philippine tensions that had spiraled over the disputed South China Sea, increasing the risk of a military conflict that could embroil the United States, which has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.

“The prospect of the Philippines pulling out of a long stretch of very tense relations with Beijing is a desirable one,” Daniel Russel, top US diplomat for East Asia, told reporters in Washington last week.

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Although the United States and China are often portrayed as great powers vying for the loyalty of small nations in

Asia, neither side wants a confrontation.

But there’s uncertainty in Washington about where the talks between Mr. Duterte and Xi will lead.

No break with US

In an interview last week with China’s state broadcaster, Mr. Duterte said he wasn’t looking to sever the historical connection with the United States.

“No, I am not breaking away. I just want to be friendly with everybody,” he said in the interview, which was broadcast by CCTV on Wednesday.

The United States says it supports dialogue on territorial issues, so long as the Philippines sticks by a July ruling from an international tribunal in a case brought by Aquino’s administration that found that China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea were invalid under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

“I do not believe that public opinion in the Philippines or the national interest of the Philippines would support the relinquishing of Philippine rights, territory or sovereignty, and I can’t imagine that is

[Mr.] Duterte’s intention,” Russel said.

If Manila were to sideline that ruling in reaching an accommodation with Beijing—perhaps with the prospect of increased access to fisheries or some other economic benefit—it would undermine what has been a sustained US diplomatic effort to get the world to respect the tribunal ruling and for China to adhere to international law in seas crucial for trade.

The US advocacy for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes has been a pillar of Obama’s outreach into Southeast Asia, where nations have looked to Washington to bolster its presence to counter China’s assertive behavior.

The planned rotation of US forces at five Philippine military bases, agreed by Aquino, was viewed as essential to that effort.

Future cooperation

But Mr. Duterte’s outbursts against the United States have put in doubt future military cooperation.

He has said that the Philippines is stopping joint military exercises and that he opposes joint patrols with the US Navy in the South China Sea.

He has also said he wants US counterterrorism troops out of Mindanao and has criticized Obama and the US ambassador in Manila in crude terms for condemning his bloody extrajudicial crackdown on illegal drugs.

Administration officials say that the US commitment to the alliance remains “ironclad” and that they have gotten no official notification about the removal of US military assets and personnel.

Chinese officials have refrained from commenting on Mr. Duterte’s domestic program and say they expect the Philippine leader’s visit to help build trust and place the territorial  dispute back on their preferred bilateral track.

Mr. Duterte has said he merely wants to obtain renewed access for Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal, known in the Philippines as Panatag Shoal, which China seized in 2012.

Both sides have played up the economic benefits of improved relations, with scores of Philippine business leaders accompanying Mr. Duterte and China considering financing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.

Dual-track thought

Beijing would be happy to shelve the issue altogether, focusing instead on economic exchanges, said Chinese government-backed scholars.

“In general, the talks between Mr. Duterte and the Chinese leaders will focus on economic aid to the Philippines and the Chinese leaders will continue to stick to the dual-track thought in handling the South China Sea issue,” said Li Jinming, professor at the Institute for South China Sea Studies, Xiamen University.—AP

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TAGS: Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Premier Li Keqiang, Rodrigo Duterte, Washington, Zhang Dejiang
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