Final preparations are underway in Beijing for the arrival, tomorrow, of Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte. And nothing is being spared. This is arguably one of the most important state visits that China has hosted in a long time – and not least for the symbolism it will exude. After four years of bitter confrontation between these two Asian neighbours – started under the last Philippine administration – the rapprochement will be rubber stamped when possibly the largest delegation the Philippines has ever sent to attend a presidential visit, is met at Beijing Capital International Airport by the People’s Republic leadership.
The delegation is comprised members of the Philippine Cabinet, top government officials, aides and anywhere between 250 and 500 business leaders (they’re the numbers that have been floated; we don’t have the final figures), They will come from across industries; from across the archipelago. The top end of that scale would roughly fill two of Philippine Airlines’ fleet of six Airbus A340-300 aircraft.
Certainly, there’s going to be nothing quiet about this visit. It will take in the political landmarks of the Chinese capital; there will be an inspection of the honour guard; a ceremonial gun salute; the two countries’ anthems will be played; the state flags will stand side by side. It will be red carpet all the way with state pageantry from the Middle Kingdom at its best. And it will be beamed around the world for all to see. It may be autumn in China, but for these two countries right now this could be the start of spring.
But behind all that, there will be government-to-government talks on a range of subjects from trade and investment to national defence. Expect progress, too, on intelligence-sharing and inter-state policing in the war on illegal drugs. On the investment side, the sectors that will be looking for Chinese funding will cover the gamut from construction, power and manufacturing to railways, tourism and agribusiness.
The still-thorny issue of Scarborough Shoal – the disputed rocky outcrops in the South China Sea that led to the previous administration straining ties with the Mainland – however, will not be tackled during this trip. This is not the forum for that; a separate negotiating body has already been set up to deal with this issue.
What can be expected, though, is that a number of memoranda or cooperation agreements will be signed. Areas covered here might include trade and investment, aid, soft loans, disaster-relief, assistance, and possibly security. Joint police initiatives in combating the narcotics trade will almost definitely be explored with initial agreements being reached where possible.
Outside the sightseeing, a visit to a drug rehab and the state banquet in the Great Hall of the People, that’s basically the government side of this trip.
The business delegation, meanwhile, will be looking for greater market access for Philippine exports – among them, electronic equipment, machinery, wood, ores, and agricultural products such as coconut oil, animal and vegetable fats, and fruits.
They will also be forging new ties with their Chinese counterparts and exploring possible future joint ventures and two-way investment prospects.
This four-day overseas trip is arguably the most important that Duterte will make during his term as president. He knows just how much is riding on it. If he gets the deals he wants – solid infrastructure commitments, among them – he will step off the plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila on Friday a happy man. China is a big part of the cheque book for the economic development which Duterte has planned for the Philippines.
He won’t get everything he wants, of course, but he should get enough. More importantly, going forward, the door to China will be open to him. The chemistry between Duterte, the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and the Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang, is also likely to be good. First and foremost, they are all pragmatists; secondly, they share an Asian interest, which will form the broader context of their negotiations. They also have a mutual distrust of the US. And thirdly, both sides are genuinely seeking close ties.
The two countries also share other economic interests. The Philippines is a stakeholder in the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank – with 9,791 shares, after Thailand it is the biggest in the Southeast Asian region. Both countries are also members of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership – an alternative to the smaller, US-led Trans Pacific Partnership – which would account for 40% of world trade.
In broad terms, then, what this trip will seek to achieve for both sides is an open and optimistic relationship with the squabbles of the past being laid to rest; a new chapter in expanded bilateral trade, and an Asian partnership built on common interests. And all the indications are that they will not be wasting any time in pursuing these goals. As the Chinese proverb states: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now”.
And while all that’s going on, at the other side of the Pacific, America will be watching very closely as its former colony moves further away and ever closer to its prospective superpower successor.