Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte raised a lot of eyebrows again by publicly announcing his country’s “separation” from the US during his state visit to China last week.
However, after he had wrapped up his visit returned to the Philippines, Duterte immediately clarified that what he actually meant was that his country would no longer toe Washington’s line on every foreign issue like it did before but the fundamentals of the relationship between Manila and Washington would remain unchanged, despite the fact that he vowed not to visit the US in his lifetime.
Perhaps all Beijing can do is take Duterte’s anti-US rhetoric with a grain of salt.
It is apparent that he is trying to have it both ways — retaining military protection from the US while getting billions of dollars’ worth of business deals from China.
In fact, it seems Duterte did manage to get what he wanted. During his visit, he concluded business deals worth US$13.5 billion.
The only price tag attached to those huge deals was that he promised to exercise restraint over the South China Sea territorial disputes.
After all, the alliance between Manila and Washington dates back more than a century and the Philippines does need the US both politically and militarily.
Suffice it to say that even if Duterte did really want to break up with Washington, the Filipino military would not let him.
Less than five months into his presidency, Duterte needs to talk tough to gain credibility and maintain his high approval ratings.
And what is a better way to do that than to publicly mock or insult the lame duck US President Barack Obama?
Moreover, by temporarily taking a pro-Beijing stance, it can probably give Duterte some leverage with whoever is going to succeed Obama as US president on major issues.
As far as Beijing is concerned, it may also be well aware that it would be unrealistic to think the Philippines will ditch the US and welcome it with open arms.
However, Beijing still needs to win Manila over for now not only to counter US influence in the region but also to prevent the South China Sea dispute from becoming a priority issue of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Next year, it will be the Philippines’s turn to chair the organization.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Oct. 24
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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