As the dust settles on the ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which in July declared Philippine sovereignty over a group of South China Sea islets – much to the displeasure of China which also claims them – relations between the two countries are becoming increasingly close. Now the tradesman’s entrance to the massive Mainland market is being fitted with a welcome mat for Philippine commerce.
And on 19-21 October, President Rodrigo Duterte, will lead a business mission to Beijing to explore specific areas of new trade.
Filipino business groups are now being asked to submit the names of prospective delegates across a range of sectors. There is no indication yet as to who will be in that party, but – without mentioning names – it’s not difficult to work out who won’t be. This will not be one of those government-sponsored junkets for the country’s oligarchs and the Makati elite to gain exclusive access. It is likely to feature exporters and entrepreneurs from across the archipelago. Possibly around two dozen businessmen will be on the trip.
But while all that is very significant, and a major departure from the China-trade policy of Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, under whose watch trade and other relations with the Mainland soured, the main event will be the optics of this entente cordiale.
Beijing looks like it could kill the fatted calf for this occasion – it is the head of state visit it most wants from this region. Already Duterte is scheduled to meet both the Chinese President, Xi Jinping, and Chinese Premier, Li Keqiang. The red carpet will be rolled out and Chinese pageantry will be on display and bristling. No doubt Duterte will inspect People’s Liberation Army troops in Tiananmen Square; there will pictures of the leaders on the steps of the Great Hall of the People and at state banquet there later. And China will publicise the entire visit via its vast global media reach.
This is a major event for both Manila and Beijing. It’s a clear statement that it’s ‘Game On’. It further underscores their mutual distrust of Washington – the Philippine eagle and the Chinese phoenix have become birds of a feather in that regard – and the White House will look at all this with mounting alarm. The main purpose of its hitherto cozy relationship with the Philippines – history aside – has been to keep China in check in the region.
Equally concerning is that its “Pivot to East Asia” initiative – largely aimed at implementing the Obama administration’s Trans Pacific Partnership trade-bloc leviathan – has also been given a serious jolt. Washington’s dream of superpower supremacy in China’s backyard, while it may not have been shattered, now has cracks.
Earlier this week, while on a visit to Vietnam, Duterte announced that the joint military sea ops, involving 1,400 American troops and a 500-strong Filipino force, scheduled for 4-12 October, will be the last to be staged. These are war games, he said, “which China does not want”
This is diplomacy Duterte-style; a ‘Pivot to China’ that will certainly help to fuel his country’s trade efforts on the Mainland. But it is as clear a statement as possible to show that the Philippine president is fully committed to reaching a long-term close relationship with its giant neighbour and that the Philippines’ “special relationship” with the US is perhaps not quite as special as it was.
Next stop, Moscow, and that might give Washington an even more severe migraine.