[The stepped-up American access to the Philippines, negotiated by the Pentagon under the previous government of Benigno S. Aquino III, was considered a mainstay of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia strategy that China has blasted as a containment policy, and that it would like to unravel.]
By Jane Perlez
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines at a celebration for the country’s
coast guard in Manila last week. Credit Damir Sagolj/Reuters
BEIJING — President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, one of America’s closest allies in Asia, has said he wants to reduce American military influence in his country and build closer ties with China.
But he has stopped short of offering to do what China would like most: scrapping an accord that gives the United States access to five military bases in the Philippines.
How far he is willing to go will be tested this week when he arrives in China on Tuesday for talks that are likely to produce signals of whether he wants to become a close friend of Beijing.
“If China succeeds in peeling the Philippines away from the United States, it will be a major win in Beijing’s long-term campaign to weaken U.S. alliances in the region,” said Andrew Shearer, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “It will feed fears that the right mix of intimidation and inducements could influence other partners to distance themselves from Washington.”
Mr. Duterte has expressed doubts about whether the United States would come to the aid of the Philippines in a military showdown, and on the eve of his departure for Beijing he said he would be looking to buy Chinese weapons in his fight against terrorism.
The stepped-up American access to the Philippines, negotiated by the Pentagon under the previous government of Benigno S. Aquino III, was considered a mainstay of the Obama administration’s “pivot” to Asia strategy that China has blasted as a containment policy, and that it would like to unravel.
Thailand, another American ally in Southeast Asia, has also increasingly turned toward China, raising the prospect that Washington faces frayed ties with two of its longstanding partners in the region.
How well China succeeds with Mr. Duterte will send signals throughout the region, where robust economic relationships with China are vital for most countries even as they fear its growing military clout — and its push for control of the South China Sea.
“China will be very watchful about how far Duterte wants to go,” said Zhu Feng, executive director of the Collaborative Innovation Center of South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University. “His pledge to distance from the United States, of course it’s very positive for China.”
In particular, Mr. Zhu said, China would like the Philippines to stop American use of an air base at Palawan, an island about 100 miles from the disputed Spratly Islands, where China has built three military bases.
The Palawan base significantly enhances the ability of American forces to project power into the disputed South China Sea, and anything that jeopardized that access would complicate United States military planning.
As China probes Mr. Duterte for strategic concessions, the new leader has his own shopping list for economic help from Beijing. In an interview with the state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, released on Monday, he criticized the United States for being stingy, saying “only China can help us.”
He has said he wants the Chinese to construct a railway in his home province of Mindanao, and from the capital, Manila, to Mindanao. A Chinese businessman has financed a huge drug rehabilitation center scheduled to open next month, a project that Mr. Duterte praised as a symbol of Chinese friendship.
A large contingent of Philippine businessmen accompanying Mr. Duterte is expecting the Chinese to lift bans on more than two dozen fruits, imposed by Beijing four years ago in retaliation against the former government for its stance on the South China Sea.
Mr. Duterte will be accorded a full state visit, and is scheduled to meet with the Chinese leader, President Xi Jinping, on Thursday at the Great Hall of the People. He is also expected to meet with Zhang Dejiang, the chairman of the standing committee of the National People’s Congress, and to visit the Great Wall and perhaps the Palace Museum in central Beijing, Chinese officials said.
How smoothly the talks proceed may depend on how well the two leaders, the rough-talking and ad hoc Mr. Duterte, 71, and the tightly scripted Mr. Jinping, 63, get along.
Mr. Xi rose through the ranks of the secretive enclaves of the Communist Party; Mr. Duterte served as mayor of Davao, one of the Philippines’ most crime-ridden cities, for 22 years.
The Philippine leader has presided over a bloody campaign against drugs that has used extrajudicial killings; Mr. Xi has led a sustained crackdown on corruption, and agreed to the detention of hundreds of lawyers, and forced confessions from some of them.
Early on, Mr. Duterte showed his desire to improve relations with China by appointing Santiago Sta. Romana, a former bureau chief for the American ABC television network in Beijing, as his new ambassador to Beijing.
Mr. Romana, 68, commonly known as Chito, lived in Beijing from 1971 until his retirement from ABC in 2010. On his return to Manila, he called for a more nuanced approach to China as head of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies.
“The Philippines is shifting from a very close and tight alignment with the United States that made it seem we were part of the anti-China coalition,” Mr. Romana said in an interview. “The pendulum may swing toward China. The alliance with the U.S. will stay. Relations with China were frozen from 2013, but now we will resume all types of dialogue.”
One of the toughest parts of the discussion between Mr. Duterte and the Chinese leadership is likely to be over Scarborough Shoal, a disputed reef in the South China Sea that China seized from the Philippines in 2012.
In reaction to that takeover, the Philippines initiated a case before an international tribunal in The Hague. In July, the tribunal ruled overwhelmingly in favor of the Philippines, declaring China’s fishing and reclamation activities around the disputed reef to be illegal.
China has denounced the decision and vowed to ignore it. In contrast, the tribunal ruling seems to be one issue on which Mr. Duterte is consistent: He has said the Philippines will abide by it.
A Chinese expert on the South China Sea, Wu Shicun, the head of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, said in an interview that he could envision a “package” deal that would include a precondition that the Philippines recognize Chinese sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, 150 miles west of the Philippine coast. In return for that, Philippine and Chinese fishermen could operate in the waters around Scarborough Shoal, but not inside the vast lagoon of the shoal because of environmental damage from overfishing in those waters, he said.
In its ruling, the tribunal said that both Philippine and Chinese fishermen had traditional fishing rights at the shoal, and that China had interfered with those rights by blocking access for the Philippine fishermen.
The notion of the Philippines granting China sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal may be a step too far for Mr. Duterte: He has said that it belongs to the Philippines, and that he would even drive a Jet Ski to plant the national flag there.
Left unsaid by Mr. Wu was China’s ambition to start reclamation work at Scarborough Shoal and transform it into a military platform.
Such construction by China had been expected in the wake of the tribunal’s decision. But that plan appears to have been postponed by the election of Mr. Duterte.
As much as China welcomes the new Philippine leader as a fresh face, he may not be an easy customer on all fronts, said Renato Cruz De Castro, a fellow at the East-West Center in Washington, and an expert on China and the Philippines.
China would meddle with Mr. Duterte’s ties to the United States by extending generous economic inducements and offering a deal on the South China Sea, he said. But on one important item, Mr. Duterte would almost certainly prove an obstacle.
“Duterte is putting China on the spot,” Dr. De Castro said. “If they do military construction at Scarborough Shoal, that would drive Mr. Duterte back to the United States.”
Follow Jane Perlez on Twitter @JanePerlez.
Yufan Huang contributed research from Beijing.