Friday, 21 October 2016

President Duterte's visit to China---A Game Changer?

         President Rodrigo Duterte's four day visit to China was accompanied by his very public hyperbole and rhetorical flourishes against the US; that are rarely seen at Heads of State level. Did Duterte really mean what he was saying or was he just trying to please the Chinese leadership? His public outbursts against the US ["Its time to say goodbye to the US"]at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, was said in the presence of the Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli; but it seems that the Chinese leadership was well aware of the volatile nature of the Filipino President. Nevertheless, these statements did create public headlines, sufficient for the leaders of ASEAN countries and the US to take notice. It must also be remembered that preceding Duterte's visit, detailed talks were held between Fu Ying, presently the Chairperson of the NPC Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and the former Filipino President Ramos at Hong Kong in August this year. The positive outcome of these talks led to the Chinese invitation.What then were the main results of Duterte's visit?
      Firstly, both sides decided to shelve the South China Sea [SCS] dispute with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin maintaining that "both sides agreed that this issue is not the sum total of the bilateral relationship". It was also agreed that the eventual settlement of the dispute would be through "bilateral" discussions. In other words, it seems that the Philippines has abandoned its position on the SCS dispute and ditched the PCA award. This is a huge Chinese gain.To be on the safe side, it would be prudent to await Duterte's visit to Japan that follows almost immediately to see what he says there.
     Secondly, the Chinese appear to be in a conciliatory mood and may allow Filipino fishermen to approach the Scarborough Shoal [Huangyan island] for fishing rights in a calibrated manner.
    But what have the Filipinos gained from this huge concession made to the Chinese on the SCS dispute?
* Both Duterte and Xi Jinping signed 13 Agreements.The Chinese have agreed to extend US$6 billion in soft loans, US$3 billion in credit from Chinese Banks and about US$4.5 billion for fighting the drugs menace etc. A Chinese businessman, Huang Rulan, whose net estimated worth is about US$ 3.9 billion, will also build four more drug rehabilitation centers in Philippines.
* The Chinese will resume importing Filipino agricultural products and indicated that they will lift the travel ban on Chinese tourists visiting the Philippines.
* The Chinese have agreed to undertake a survey for infrastructure projects, including building a railway line in northern Philippines.
* But what is of paramount importance is the fact that there are about 100,000 Filipino maids illegally working in China. There is a high demand for these maids in China, for they are considered much better at their work than locals [yuesaos] and who also teach English to young Chinese children. In any case, the local nannies demand much higher wages as per local law, almost about 10,000 yuans per month; whereas the illegal Filipinos are available at about 6000-7000 yuans per month. There is thus a huge demand for Filipino maids in China. The Chinese government cannot legalize the stay of the Filipino maids, as Chinese law does not permit them to do so and therefore they turn a blind eye to the problem. The Chinese press openly called for some kind of legalization. Nevertheless, this remains an unresolved issue with the Filipino government.
     On the surface, therefore, President Duterte's visit was a resounding success. It boosted China's regional standing and has the potential of weakening the strategic position of the US in the western pacific. In order to secure its position, the Chinese did not yield on the territorial dispute or give concessions, but did indeed give limited economic favors and selected political support. Nevertheless, the Chinese are also conscious that the position of the US is not all that weak in the Philippines and that they have the potential to derail Duterte's efforts. Dutete's posturing in China will certainly stimulate pro-US forces that might fatally undermine his domestic position.
  The bottom line for both the US and China is: How much faith to put in a leader whose views are so obviously volatile? The answer to that key question remains moot.    

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