THE ASIAN VOICE

Duterte's pivot away from US timely and significant: China Daily columnist

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures a clenched fist as he visit soldiers in Butig, Lanao del Sur, southern Philippines on Nov 30, 2016.
Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte gestures a clenched fist as he visit soldiers in Butig, Lanao del Sur, southern Philippines on Nov 30, 2016. PHOTO: REUTERS

China Daily/Asia News Network

The dramatic improvement in the relationship between China and the Philippines has raised a lot of eyebrows in the West, but it is definitely in the best interests of the two neighbours as well as those of other nations in South-east Asia.

On Friday, in his latest indication of his goodwill towards China, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told the Philippine Star that he is considering making a second visit to China. 

While earlier this month in Lima, Peru, when meeting with President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders' Meeting, the Philippine leader also said his country is willing to be friends with "brotherly" China forever.

Since taking office, Duterte has been matching words with deeds to turn a new page in his country's relationship with China. 

His commitment to putting his country's relationship with China back on the right track has won him much applause in both countries.

Under his predecessor Benigno Aquino III, bilateral ties had been strained for years due to the Philippines' provocations and challenges to China's maritime interests at the instigation of the United States.

Duterte's October visit to China has broken the ice between the two countries and reaped fruitful results in furthering bilateral cooperation in various fields.

According Philippine estimates, China-proposed investment commitments to the Philippines could add up to US$15 billion (S$21.43 billion). 

This will bring huge benefits to the Philippines as it is three times larger than the total FDI inflows to the Philippines in 2015, which were estimated at US$5.3 billion.

The new momentum in bilateral cooperation is based on reciprocity and win-win outcomes, and there is every reason for the Philippines to continue to inject impetus into the current desirable momentum in bilateral ties.

Soon after Duterte's visit, China also allowed Philippine fishermen to return to the waters of China's Huangyan Island in a sign of the resumed friendship between the two neighbours.

Such positive developments have helped calm down the troubled waters in the South China Sea, which were threatening to come to the boil.

A healthy and growing relationship between Beijing and Manila is obviously a boon to the region at large, especially Asean. 

This is especially true considering that previous Philippine government used every occasion of the bloc's annual meetings to raise the South China Sea issue, doing a lot of damage to the unity of the regional organisation.

Just like Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior journalist and international relations expert in Thailand, rightfully pointed out in an opinion piece earlier this month, for the past six years, the government of ex-president Aquino III had pursued its own isolationist policy by seeking support solely from the US while ignoring Asean diplomacy.

The consequences of Aquino III's policy have been toxic as Asean is an organisation that operates on the premise of consensus. 

Without consensus, the 10-member bloc cannot possibly unite all its members and effectively cooperate with its regional partners to press ahead with its ambitious plan for an Asean Community.

Now that Duterte has made a strategic pivot away from the US, the Philippines can resume being a whole-hearted member of the bloc. 

This crucial change is what Asean needs right now as it has to cope with the new global political and economic realities.

Globalisation is losing ground while trade protectionism is gaining support in the West. Against this backdrop, the members of Asean should do their utmost to strive for unity and greater consensuses which are the keys for realising their vision for an Asean community. 

To this end, Duterte's pivot is both timely and significant.