It appears as though Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s budding romance with Chinese President Xi Jinping may not be so steamy after all with the outspoken leader stressing that he was leaving his options open during a visit this week to Japan to meet with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Last week, Duterte was in Beijing. Inside the Great Hall of the People he announced his “separation” from the United States and realignment with China and Russia, continuing with his aggressive stance against the Philippines’ former principal ally, and frightening Washington’s major ally in the region, Japan.
However, Duterte clarified himself in a speech to Japanese executives yesterday, repeating his threats to cut off military and economic ties with the US, but assuring his hosts that this did not mean that he planned to enter into a military alliance with China. Instead, Duterte cast the pivot as part of a new independent foreign policy that was all about the bottom line:
“I went to China for a visit and I would like to assure you that all there was, was economics,” he said. “We did not talk about arms, we did not talk about stationing of troops, we avoided talking about alliances, military or otherwise.”
Yet again, Duterte vowed to rid his country of all foreign troops within two years and threatened to cancel defense pacts with the US, insisting that the Philippines was not “a dog on a leash.” Despite tough words on this matter in the past, Duterte has yet to actually take any concrete action beyond cancelling some joint naval patrol exercises.
While some worried that Duterte was ready to give up the Philippines’ South China Sea claims in order to please Beijing, Duterte assured Japan that he would insist on ending the conflict via international rule of law, referring to a decision in July by UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague which invalidated China’s vast claims to the South China Sea. Calling Japan “closer than a brother,” Duterte welcomed Japanese help in solving the matter.
During his visit to Beijing, Xi and Duterte agreed to “temporarily put aside” their differences in the South China Sea and work to improve bilateral ties. In Japan, Duterte noted that this arrangement couldn’t last forever.
“Whether we like it or not, someday we’ll have to talk about it and present our side and I said, in front of you, I cannot go out of the arbitral doctrine. I’m limited to what it says,” Duterte said.
Last week, Reuters reported that a deal may be worked out to give Philippine fisherman access to the rich fishing waters off the disputed Scarborough Shoal, which China seized back in 2012. The Philippine Daily Inquirer reports that Manila rejected this kind of deal because it would “go against the ruling of an international tribunal that the common fishing ground did not belong to anyone.”
Before visiting Beijing last week, Duterte declared that, “Only China can help us.” But as the US has learned, it appears as though his affections are a bit fickle. When asked to choose sides between China and Japan, Duterte responded: “Between China and Japan, I think I love the Philippines more.”