Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's surprising declaration in Beijing of separating from the United States, which he proclaimed had "lost", would have pleased his hosts. But China probably knew that Mr Duterte was trying his hand at the old game of playing one major power against another, as an American diplomat noted. That was revealed when he promptly clarified "it is not severance of ties" with the US, upon returning home.
His Asean partners would welcome his efforts to build closer ties with Beijing as such linkages can help to promote stability in the region. However, they would hope that the Philippines, one of the founding members of Asean, would not overlook the importance of the grouping in the larger scheme of things. Asean's cohesion helps each of its members to deal on better terms with powers like the United States, China, India and Russia. Asean solidarity is also critical to help ensure that peace, a rules-based order in the region and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea are safeguarded. Underpinned by the critical principle of Asean centrality, this cohesion cannot hold if each state pursues its own narrow interests.
Of course, Mr Duterte's declarations will be seen in the light of his flamboyant political personality and penchant for making waves. His offer to include Russia in a tripartite alliance against the rest of the world might sound burlesque but it is in the same anti-status quo spirit which has won him domestic support. It also enabled him to cock a snook at the Western world for having criticised extrajudicial killings linked to his war on drugs.
More importantly, Mr Duterte's four-day state visit, in which he was accompanied by a 400-strong business delegation, produced enough results in the economic field. Deals worth more than US$13 billion (S$18 billion) were signed, with the stated potential to create one million jobs for Filipinos outside Manila. Of particular significance is Chinese interest and capability in investing in Philippine infrastructure projects. Mr Duterte's agenda for national rejuvenation, which goes beyond his anti-drug and anti-crime war, envisages transformative projects such as a 2,000km railway link to the restive Mindanao region. Agriculture and tourism are other areas of cooperation that both sides have identified.
Ties with the Philippines would aid China's strategic vision of creating a modern Silk Road, based on both land and sea, that redraws its relations with the rest of Asia, with Europe and with Africa. Its participation in infrastructure development in the Philippines and elsewhere in South-east Asia would benefit the region. Such collaboration might also give Beijing less reason to suspect that its South-east Asian neighbours are ganging up against it. On the contrary, they wish to be partners in the economic remaking of Asia, in which China's participation is mutually beneficial.