Duterte’s deference delights China but is questioned at home
BEIJING—President Rodrigo Duterte’s effusive message of friendship on his visit to Beijing this week has handed China a public relations bonanza just three months after Beijing suffered a humiliating defeat at an international tribunal.
The state-owned Chinese media that sought to portray Duterte’s predecessor and the arbitration panel as American puppets this summer have now rolled out what Chinese media scholars describe as a rare welcome for the Philippine president, who this week downplayed his country’s dispute with Beijing over South China Sea territory.
But the overtures have drawn criticism of Duterte at home in the Philippines, where the public is wary of taking a deferential attitude to a country regarded as a bully.
As his visit unfolded this week, Chinese state media aired a series of interviews in which Duterte—who has repeatedly voiced strident criticism of the United States—lavished his Chinese hosts with conciliatory words and pleaded earnestly for economic aid.
Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he has rarely seen a state visit accompanied by so many interviews from state media.
“The visit has strategic significance and China wants to express its welcome, but Duterte also has a message to convey and he’s willing to give that same message to different Chinese outlets over and over,” Zhan said. “In the years I’ve followed the Chinese media I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”
In a 12-minute China Central Television interview broadcast Wednesday, Duterte cast the two countries as bound as brothers by the South China Sea and mentioned his own Chinese ancestry—his grandfather was an immigrant from Xiamen province—which, he said, explains his personal sincerity. Developing his country’s economy was more important than exacerbating tensions with China over the South China Sea, as other US-backed Southeast Asian neighbors would have him do, he said.
“They say that all the nations would weigh in by my side, (but) I said it is close to a third world war,” he told CCTV. “What would be my point in insisting on the ownership of that body of water when the world is exploding?”
Someday, he added, the South China Sea will just be known as the China Sea. “One hundred years from now, it’s really meaningless,” he said. “The oceans cannot feed us all. Your fish is my fish.”
Later Wednesday, speaking to reporters in Beijing, Duterte said he would not discuss the South China Sea issue unless Chinese President Xi Jinping raised it.
“As a matter of courtesy and in the Oriental way, you always wait, because I am a visitor, I can’t destroy the goodwill by just blurting out something,” he said.
There was plenty of apparent goodwill spilling forth from Chinese state television and off its official newspaper’s editorial pages.
During the interview segment, veteran CCTV correspondent Shui Junyi narrated Duterte’s rise as a political leader of conviction who fought against crime and drugs as mayor of Davao but has suffered Western criticism for human rights abuses.
Duterte outlined his wish list of help from Beijing, led first by his hope that China would include the Philippines in the Asian giant’s massive Silk Road economic project. Shui responded: “We never forget you.”
He also said he hoped for a railroad, if China could “find it in your heart to give it to us.”
But Duterte’s posture in China has been met with skepticism back home. Although his supporters have cheered his diplomatic pivot away from the United States on social media, the country’s major media outlets have questioned his remarks in China, said Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.
“The mainstream media is saying it doesn’t sound right to be so deferential to the very country that has occupied Philippine territory, and that has provided negligible aid during Typhoon Haiyan,” said Heydarian. “Now he’s popular enough to shape public sentiment and ameliorate opponents, but that’s not guaranteed a year from now. He’s lucky this is his honeymoon period.”
Former Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who brought the triumphant arbitration case against China, said his country’s foreign policy should not cast aside a longtime ally—the United States—and favor another state, referring to China.
“It has recently been perceived that our foreign policy had seemingly gone off-track,” del Rosario said in Manila on Tuesday.
Heydarian said Duterte’s performance in China has been carefully calibrated to gain deals that the Philippine economy needs. “The first time I saw him on CCTV I was shocked,” Heydarian said. “But this is a measured, Machiavellian, pragmatic leader.”
At the end of the CCTV interview segment, Duterte told his interviewer that he wanted to deliver a closing message to the people of China and to its leaders who had granted him “permission” to visit.
“I’m going there in friendship, to extend my hand in warm brotherhood and also to ask for help,” Duterte said, turning to face the camera directly. “I must be frank, I must be honest enough to say that we need your help.”
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