Philippine President's Beijing trip

Duterte in Beijing: For China, chance to ease South China Sea tensions

Analysts expect Beijing to bring up dispute for negotiation during Duterte's visit

Mr Duterte (in white) on a newly built Philippine Coast Guard vessel. Analysts believe that the President's upcoming state visit to China will be a chance for both sides to discuss ways to dial down tensions in the South China Sea.
Mr Duterte (in white) on a newly built Philippine Coast Guard vessel. Analysts believe that the President's upcoming state visit to China will be a chance for both sides to discuss ways to dial down tensions in the South China Sea.PHOTO: REUTERS

China will seize the opportunity during Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's state visit next week to initiate talks to dial down tensions in the South China Sea, say analysts.

In July, an arbitral tribunal at The Hague ruled overwhelmingly in favour of Manila in its dispute with Beijing over the South China Sea. China has refused to recognise the ruling and, on his part, Mr Duterte has downplayed it as he seeks to engage the Asian giant.

"Beijing will want to negotiate with the Philippines without the interference of a third country," South-east Asian expert Li Jinming from Xiamen University told The Straits Times.

"Although it cannot be resolved immediately, this visit will give it a good start," he added.

Dr Li Kaisheng from Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences noted that Beijing hopes to "turn a page" on the South China Sea issue.


"So, we could possibly look forward to seeing both sides reach an understanding on this," said Dr Li.

He speculated that it could even come in the form of a public declaration, albeit in a vague language, to explain each other's stance.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday that the Philippine leader will make a four-day state visit starting next Tuesday at the invitation of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said the two leaders will have a "deep exchange of views" on how to improve ties and cooperation, as well as international and regional affairs.

Mr Duterte will also meet other leaders including Premier Li Keqiang during the trip, his first to a country outside of South-east Asia.

While the tough-talking Mr Duterte has said he will not touch on the South China Sea issue during his visit, he is hoping to persuade Mr Xi to allow Filipino fishermen to return to the Chinese-controlled atoll, Scarborough Shoal.

Xiamen University's Prof Li noted that in July's arbitral tribunal ruling, fishermen from the Philippines are deemed to have traditional fishing rights at Scarborough.

"If Beijing agrees to this (Mr Duterte's request), it will be very difficult, for it has said it 'does not accept and does not recognise' the ruling," he said. "Doing so will be indirectly recognising the ruling."

Mr Duterte's China visit comes as he vows to pivot away from the United States, his country's longstanding ally, to move closer to the other major powers, China and Russia.

Analysts here say it is unrealistic to expect the Philippines to make any material change to its relationship with the US.

Mr Duterte is essentially adopting a "balancing" strategy between the two major powers - the US and China, said Dr Xu Liping, an Asean researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"It's just that he has a tendency to use extreme language," he added.

Agreeing, South-east Asia expert Zhang Mingliang of Jinan University said Beijing is fully aware that despite Mr Duterte's anti-US stance and threats to end joint military drills with the US, the fundamentals of US-Philippine ties will not be changed.

Also, Beijing will not wish for Manila to distance itself from Washington, said Dr Zha Wen from China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing. "It is not interested in making the assumption of a zero-sum game," she added.

Another key highlight of Mr Duterte's trip will be an increase in economic cooperation, analysts say. According to Dr Xu, some observers have predicted that Mr Duterte could leave China with as much as US$50 billion (S$69.4 billion) worth of investment deals.

He noted that there has been a dearth of Chinese investment projects, especially government- driven ones, in the Philippines since 2012.

"This is the time to make up for it, especially when China is pushing hard on its One Belt, One Road initiative," he added.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2016, with the headline 'For China, chance to ease S. China Sea tensions'. Print Edition | Subscribe