Asia's Game of Thrones
Duterte Walks Back China Criticism

During Rodrigo Duterte’s tumultuous tenure as Philippine President, a pattern has emerged wherein the outspoken President issues provocative statements that are then quickly walked back by one of his subordinates. Today, however, the dynamic was reversed: Days after Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay issued a surprisingly tough statement about China’s militarization of the South China Sea, Duterte emerged to explain that it was all a misunderstanding. Reuters:

Duterte said he wanted solid ties with China and there was no urgency in pressing it to abide by last year’s arbitration ruling on the Philippines’ maritime boundaries and sovereign rights, which went in favor of Manila and infuriated Beijing. […]

“The problem is I think Secretary Yasay was misunderstood by the Chinese government,” Duterte said in a speech.

“I would like to assure China, and this is what I had committed to do when I was there, that we will talk as friends,” he said, referring to a trip he made to China last year. […]

“We cannot go to war because we cannot afford it,” he said. “And as much as possible, the bilateral relations between the two countries would be enhanced and improved and trade and commerce between the two countries greatly improved.”

Part of what could be motivating Duterte’s walk back is the sudden postponement of a Chinese commercial visit scheduled for Thursday, when the Chinese Commerce Minister was expected to sign off on forty lucrative joint projects. The Chinese side offered no explanation for the change, prompting speculation that Beijing was protesting Yasay’s critical rhetoric on the South China Sea.

Duterte’s clarification of his friendly stance toward Beijing suggests that he still places a high premium on the relationship with China, and the commercial relationship in particular. Duterte has long privileged economic interests in his dealings with China, and he has had something to show for it. When he traveled to China with a delegation of Philippine business leaders, for instance, the two sides signed off on $13.5 billion in trade deals, and Manila has since received billions in generous infrastructure loans from Beijing. China’s decision to cancel a trade summit at the last minute could be a none-too-subtle warning to Manila not to jeopardize such favorable treatment with criticism of China.

In any case, Duterte is making clear that he is committed to making the Chinese relationship work, even as many of his subordinates—and especially the military establishment—have been publicly sounding alarm bells about Beijing’s militant posture. If China continues to step up its provocative maneuvers in the South China Sea, those fissures could become even more visible.

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