According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, President Xi Jinping has invited Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to China at the end of this month, following Duterte’s attendance at the Second Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing earlier this year. The frequent high-ranking visits indicate increasingly close relations between the two countries.
Since Duterte assumed office in June 2016, the focus of Sino-Philippines relations has shifted from the territory disputes in the South China Sea to economic cooperation, and thus bilateral ties have improved substantially. Booming trade and investment connections between China and the Philippines all but assure warmer relations between the two countries.
Closer ties however have given rise to a wave of criticisms by some leading voices on growing Chinese influence in the Philippines. Political opposition parties in the Philippines have criticised the government for pursuing economic benefits at the cost of sovereignty. Recently, the Philippine Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana claimed that Chinese warships “entered” Philippine waters as an act of “provocation”. Opposition figures have also blamed China for recent clashes between Chinese and Philippine fishing boats and for increases in Chinese immigration to the Philippines.
Given the rising domestic pressure, Duterte may be inclined to revive his hard-line stance on the South China Sea dispute. He has stated that he would raise the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his upcoming China visit.
Duterte may also consider pursuing some compromises with the opposition as well as with the military. While he will need to respond to concerns and criticisms from the opposition, he also expects to continue to benefit politically from booming economic cooperation with China, which supports his economic plans and further consolidation of his power.
Chinese authorities are aware of anti-Chinese sentiments in the Philippines as well as the conspicuous role played by the US — an ally of the Philippines — in China-Philippines relations. Hence, it appears a strategic moment for China to invite Duterte to Beijing and discuss how to promote economic cooperation while limiting the risks to bilateral relations.
Both sides may reaffirm consensus on maintaining peace and stability in the South China Sea and strengthening policy coordination on the Code of Conduct negotiation. There will also be more pragmatic cooperation in maritime security, trust-building measures between the two navies, and joint law enforcement between the two coast guards.
As bilateral cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative is a priority of both the Chinese and Philippine governments, momentum around trade and investment connections, development aid, and people-to-people exchanges will continue to grow in the near future. Meanwhile, challenges to cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative need to be addressed so that the people of both countries can share in the benefits it promises to deliver.
In short, Duterte’s upcoming visit should be embraced as an important opportunity for the two countries to continue to foster friendship and manage disputes.