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The View From Asia

Duterte's puzzling pivot to China

Manila's move to boost ties with Beijing has regional watchers trying to understand the larger implications. Here are excerpts from commentaries in Asia News Network papers

'Sum total' approach

Editorial
Philippine Daily Inquirer, Philippines

President Rodrigo Duterte has described (his visit to China), optimistically, as a "key turning point in both our histories". If he completes the pivot to China within his term and in the process ends the security alliance with the United States and poses key questions about Asean's long-term viability, it will mark the start of a decisive turn - for the Philippines. For China, not as much. It will simply accentuate the power imbalance in relations.

The President and his men do not see it that way, of course. Before leaving for Brunei, he said:  "As we mark this year of the 41st anniversary of the establishment of relations between China and the Philippines, we will look at the sum total of our relationships."

That is the administration's new mantra: Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay repeated the phrase the day after Mr Duterte's pre-departure speech, at a news conference in Brunei, when he noted that the country's dispute with China over competing claims in the South China Sea was not the "sum total" of their relations.

We can expect frequent use of this phrase as it is a good summary of the administration's approach.

The backdrop is perhaps best understood in terms used by Communications Secretary Martin Andanar : "Manila, during the previous administration, pursued a policy that reduced a flourishing and multifaceted relationship into a mere squabble over which entity owned this reef or that. Issues of trade and commerce were thrown into the dustbin, and everything was reduced to a game of asserting ownership."

Why assistance and loans from China are to be welcomed, but those from the US should be scorned, Mr Yasay did not say, or why assistance and loans from China form part of an independent foreign policy, but not those from the US.

The new administration has clearly accepted Beijing's position that the previous administration was the cause of the strain in bilateral relations. With that as given, there is no dispute that the new "sum total" approach seeks to put the spotlight on other aspects, including trade and investments.

Chance to turn the page

Wang Hui
China Daily, China

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's words and gestures can help turn a new page in the relationship between Beijing and Manila and ratchet down tensions in the disputed waters. If such desirable momentum can be maintained, people should not be surprised if Beijing and Manila reach a consensus very soon on resolving the maritime disputes through bilateral talks. Such a prospect is also sought by China as the disputes are standing in the way of deepening trust and cooperation between China and its neighbours in South-east Asia.

Yet, some are unhappy about the warming relations. A Financial Times report on Oct 12 said Mr Duterte has unrealistic expectations about what China will give him, and lessened his leverage with Beijing by repudiating the United States. Those harbouring such views would like to drive a wedge between the two nations. However, reciprocity and win-win outcomes have always prevailed in China's interactions with other countries.

Fortunately, the new Philippine government has decided not to be used as a stepping stone in America's strategic manoeuvring in the region, which is intended to contain China's rise. Those who feel uncomfortable about or even outraged by the rapprochement between Beijing and Manila only want to fish in troubled waters.


  • The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner Asia News Network, a grouping of 21 newspapers. For more, see www.asianews.network.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 22, 2016, with the headline 'Duterte's puzzling pivot to China'. Print Edition | Subscribe