Duterte in Beijing: For the Philippines, chance to bag loans and trade deals

Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a gathering of businessmen in Pasay city, Manila.
Rodrigo Duterte speaks during a gathering of businessmen in Pasay city, Manila.PHOTO: REUTERS

For Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, his four-day state visit to China next week will be all about money and respect.

He is hoping to secure a bevy of loans and trade deals and to accentuate his message that his country can move on without help from its traditional ally, the United States.

Hundreds of business executives are joining his delegation looking to close deals in various sectors, from rail and construction to tourism, agribusiness, power and manufacturing.

One Chinese company is said to be interested in building a bullet train network that will connect Manila to two special economic zones more than 100km away.

One topic that will be off the table is the ruling handed down in July by an arbitral tribunal at The Hague that strikes down China's vast claims to the South China Sea. Manila filed the case in 2013.

Mr Duterte, who leaves for Beijing on Tuesday, said he has a "good feeling" about this trip, as long as no one brings up the ruling or frames talks about the South China Sea as a dispute.

Said Foreign Ministry spokesman Charles Jose yesterday: "We expect all areas of interest to be discussed, including the South China Sea.

"I don't know how things will emerge, but I would imagine this will be taken up during the meeting with (Chinese President) Xi Jinping."

Foreign Minister Perfecto Yasay told Bloomberg on Thursday that the visit "is not to engage China in bilateral negotiations with respect to our disputes in the South China Sea".

Mr Duterte has said he hopes to sneak in a request to Mr Xi to let Filipinos fish around Scarborough Shoal, an atoll in the South China Sea that has been under Chinese control since 2012.

China seized Scarborough after a two-month standoff that began when a Philippine Navy frigate seized eight Chinese fishing boats suspected of poaching.

Since then, the Chinese Coast Guard has been chasing Filipino fishermen away, often using water cannons.

Apart from Mr Xi, Mr Duterte will also meet Premier Li Keqiang and parliamentary chief Zhang Dejiang.

Other than the Scarborough request, Mr Duterte will mostly talk about bringing more Chinese investments to the Philippines. He said he expects China to provide soft loans that he plans to use to build hospitals, schools and power plants.

Mr Duterte has been aggressively courting China, as he pivots angrily away from the US.

That hostility is being stoked by an ongoing feud he has with the US over his anti-crime drive. US officials have criticised Mr Duterte for the more than 3,500 extrajudicial killings by police and vigilantes since he took office on June 30.

He has responded by raining expletives and obscenities on the US and President Barack Obama.

On Wednesday, he said he had ordered his defence minister to stop preparations for next year's joint military exercises with the US.

China, by contrast, is cheering on Mr Duterte's war on crime.

A Chinese businessman has financed the construction of a drug rehabilitation centre north of Manila that can house about 1,500 inmates.

This rapprochement with China, however, is threatening to upset strategic alliances in a region growing wary of Beijing's influence and military might.

Analysts say whether his overtures carry weight or are simply aimed at boosting his profile at home by espousing a "pro-Filipino" foreign policy, Mr Duterte is already tilting the balance of power in the region.

"Almost single-handedly, Duterte has reshaped the regional strategic dynamics, with both Beijing and Washington recalibrating their next move in the South China Sea as they try to anticipate the Filipino strongman's foreign policy trajectory," said Mr Richard Javad Heydarian, a political scientist at De La Salle University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'For the Philippines, chance to bag loans and trade deals'. Print Edition | Subscribe