“My grandfather is Chinese,” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told the official Xinhua news agency during an interview last week, possibly in an attempt to warm up his past with China.
But as he began a four-day state visit to China on Tuesday, Duterte’s focus was surely be on the future of Manila’s relations with Beijing.
Strongman Duterte’s high-profile visit comes amid his anti-drug war, criticised by many as brutal and ruthless as it has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 people. Western countries have questioned his methods of dealing with the menace and talked about the violation of human rights and political vendetta.
China, however, has issued several statements supporting Duterte’s anti-narcotics campaign and vowed to stand by him.
As the old alliance between the US and the Philippines frays, the visit will be keenly watched for signs of Manila moving away from Washington and into the willing diplomatic arms of Beijing.
“For more than a century, the Philippines and the US have had a shared history of colonialism, wars, rebellion, aid and deep economic ties. That could change as Duterte’s three-month-old administration re-examines the relationship,” said a Reuters report from Manila.
But barely three months ago, Manila and Beijing were engaged in a war of words over the South China Sea arbitration case brought by Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III against China over the ownership of islands in the maritime region.
The Hague Tribunal’s verdict went in favour of the Philippines but China dismissed the ruling as a farce.
“The visit surprises many around the world. It comes at a time when China-Philippines ties have nosedived to a historical low because of the farcical (South China Sea) arbitration case brought by Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino III against China,” Xinhua said in a commentary on Tuesday.
“In a reflection of his keenness to repair the seriously damaged relations, the new Philippine president chose China to be the first country he visits outside the Association of Southeast Asian Nations since taking office in June.”
Duterte will have to remember during his negotiations with top Chinese leaders, including President Xi Jinping, that China will never accept the arbitration verdict. The Xinhua commentary too made that amply clear.
“Given the positive signs, Duterte’s widely watched visit to China functions as a litmus test of his sincerity and political wisdom. Among others, he needs to resist the temptation to thrust the so-called final award in the arbitration case to bilateral talks on the South China Sea issue. The verdict issued by a law-abusing tribunal has no place in the negotiations at all,” it said.
Duterte, on his part, said in the interview: “There is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water.”
He added, “Some other countries know we are short of money, (but) instead of helping us, all they had to do was just to criticise. China never criticises. They help us quietly. And I said that’s why it’s part of the sincerity of the people.”
Duterte knew what he was talking about when he mentioned his grandfather in the interview. “My grandfather is Chinese ... It’s only China (that) can help us.”