Hopes rise as visit by Duterte set

duterte photo.jpg
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

By Zhang Yunbi and Wang Qingyun

Philippine president’s trip to China next week hailed as milestone in bilateral ties.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will make a four-day state visit to China next week, bringing along a 250-member business delegation, and a number of deals are expected to be signed.

The visit, which will be Duterte’s first outside Southeast Asia since he became president in June, was announced by China’s Foreign Ministry on Wednesday. It will also be the first state visit by a top Philippine leader in the past five years, during which time maritime disputes soured bilateral ties under Duterte’s predecessor.

Philippine Trade Undersecretary Nora Terrado, who told Reuters that initially only about two dozen Philippine entrepreneurs were to accompany Duterte to China, said the number had ballooned to about 250.

Experts said the visit, scheduled for Oct 18 to 21, will be a milestone that might open a new chapter in Beijing-Manila relations as well as the South China Sea issue if Manila maintains its sincerity.

Ties between Beijing and Manila had been chilly over the past few years under former president Benigno Aquino III, who played up the maritime dispute on the international stage and refused to hold direct talks with China.

Duterte, unlike his predecessor, has said he wants stronger ties with China to gain funding for development projects and has kept a cool head on the South China Sea dispute, said Wu Shicun, a South China Sea expert.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang confirmed that Duterte will talk with President Xi Jinping as well as meet with Premier Li Keqiang and China’s top legislator, Zhang Dejiang.

Although neither side released details of the visit or possible outcomes, Geng said the two sides “are maintaining close contacts about detailed arrangements for the visit and the outcome documents”.

It is hoped that the visit will put the bilateral ties “back on the track of being healthy and stable”, Geng said, adding that the Philippines is a “traditionally amicable neighbor of China”.

Zhou Fangyin, a professor of Chinese foreign policy at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies, said the preparations for Duterte’s visit mirror great sincerity — particularly from the Duterte administration — for thawing ties and for Beijing’s vision for long-term investment in bilateral ties.

As to deals that might be signed during the visit, Zhou said potential highlights might be increased trade of agricultural produce with China as well as infrastructure construction, which the Philippines needs.

The visit will be an important opportunity that “both sides should grasp”, and “Duterte possibly has his eyes on cooperation with China in the long run” in addition to this visit, Zhou said.

The South China Sea issue is unlikely to be resolved overnight, and neither country should give up working on the fragile ties, Zhou added.

Wu Shicun said “the times have changed” for China-Philippine ties, and he believes “the visit will navigate the relationship out of the record low and move on steadfastly”.

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