Rodrigo Duterte arrives in China with 'make friends, not war' message

Philippines president touches down in Beijing for state visit aimed at repairing relations as host hopes to lure key US ally

The Philippines’ president has flown into Beijing, telling his hosts he wants to make friends not war, as China signalled its support for Manila’s brutal crackdown on drugs.

Rodrigo Duterte has brought a 400-strong business delegation on the three-day state visit designed to secure billions of dollars of investment and to repair relations with the world’s second biggest economy.

Those accompanying the controversial populist, who will meet his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, include the shipping billionaire Enrique Razon and the shopping mall magnate Hans Sy.

Ronald dela Rosa, the controversial police chief who has urged drug users to murder traffickers and torch their homes, is also on the trip.

Beijing is hoping to use the visit to lure one of the US’s key Asian allies into its embrace, in a potential blow to Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” push aimed at counterbalancing Chinese influence in the region.

As Duterte, 71, landed in China on Tuesday evening, the Communist party’s official media heaped praise on his decision to seek a rapprochement with Beijing after his landslide election in May.

The party-run Global Times tabloid urged Beijing to accept Duterte’s “olive branch”. “We call on China to grasp this major strategic opportunity,” the newspaper said in an editorial.

China’s official news service, Xinhua, said the trip showed the Filipino politician’s “keenness to repair the seriously damaged relations” with Beijing and was a sign of his “pluck and pragmatism”.

Duterte had indicated he would not continue “colluding with outside meddlers and making unnecessary provocations”, the state-run agency added, in a not-so-subtle dig at US opposition to Beijing’s activities in the South China Sea.

China’s president Xi Jinping.
China’s president Xi Jinping. Photograph: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Since taking office in June, Duterte, an outspoken former mayor some call “the punisher”, has unleashed a war on crime in which more than 3,800 have died.

“I don’t give a shit [about human rights],” he told al-Jazeera on the eve of his trip to China.

Duterte has batted away US criticism of the death toll, calling Obama a “son of a whore” who could “go to hell”.

Xinhua noted that Duterte now needed international friends, “not least those who sympathise with his fierce campaign against drugs”.

In exchange for its support, Beijing expects Duterte to back away from a long-running conflict over disputed territories in the South China Sea. In July, an international tribunal struck a blow to China’s sweeping historical claims in the region when it ruled on a case brought by Manila in 2013.

But speaking to Xinhua before his visit, Duterte indicated he would not allow the dispute to poison ties between the two countries and was unlikely to press Beijing on the issue.

“There is no sense in going to war. There is no sense fighting over a body of water,” he was quoted as saying. “It is better to talk than war. We want to talk about friendship, we want to talk about cooperation and most of all, we want to talk about business.”

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies thinktank, said a downgrading of the allegiance between Manila and Washington could damage the US if it was no longer able to fly P-8 spy planes out of its airbases.

She said: “The Philippines has been a very important partner in the effort to understand what the Chinese are doing in the South China Sea and deter them from undertaking more destablising actions.”

But Glaser said she doubted the people of the Philippines would back a rupture with the US in spite of Duterte’s increasingly hostile rhetoric.

“When it comes to popular opinion in the Philippines … Duterte’s popularity is because of his anti-drug campaign. It’s not because of his efforts to weaken the alliance with the United States,” she said. “I just don’t think the people in the Philippines are going to support an end to this alliance or a weakening of our cooperation.”


Tom Phillips in Beijing

The GuardianTramp

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