During a Philippine presidential debate before the election, then-candidate Rodrigo Duterte proudly claimed he would sacrifice himself and personally drive a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and plant the Philippine flag to show his defiance against China.
The Philippines, then under President Benigno Aquino Jr., had previously taken China to the international court over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea resulting in the Hague court dismissing China’s claims to the contested waters. The decision, while an upset to China, made it clear that the country had indeed violated Philippine sovereignty by building artificial islands in the area.
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Hostilities are expected to take a backseat, however, when Duterte meets Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week in Beijing. Duterte’s recent tirades against the United States and his praises of China have been seen as a clear signal of a sudden pivot in foreign policy of the country which had been a former colony of the U.S.
The Philippines’ and the United States’ relations have historically been strong and have been described as a “special relationship“.
Since Duterte was sworn into office, however, there has been a significant change in perspective and tone. The country’s Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Perfecto Yasay, has echoed the president’s previous pronouncement that the U.S. has “failed” the Philippines, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
Yasay was quoted as saying that the U.S., our “only ally,” could not assure the Philippines that “it will promptly come to our defense under our existing military treaty and agreements” in “taking a hard line towards the enforcement of our sovereignty rights under international law.”
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to the Philippines Philip Goldberg said in his farewell lunch that the U.S. and the Philippines has had a “fruitful relationship that benefits both sides,” reported CNN Philippines.
Answering questions about Duterte and Yasay’s statements, Goldberg said: “No. The United States is a good friend of the people of the Philippines and works continually with the government and the people of the Philippines to make it a better relationship.”
Tough-talking President Duterte, who was later revealed to have an ethnic Chinese grandfather from Xiamen, has been building up the Philippines’s relationship with China after having historically viewed the U.S. as one of their most favorite nations in the world.
At a recent forum, Duterte advised Filipino businessmen to learn from their Chinese counterparts.
“Study the Chinese style. It’s an innate thing in them, the art of doing business,” he was quoted by South China Morning Post as saying.
“You know my grandfather, when he arrived in Agusan, Butuan, he had nothing but his capital. He’s really good. He went [from selling dried] copra then to buying land. He kept his money growing.”
Another similarity and point of concern for both countries is how they view external critics on human rights. Some critics observe that the detachment from U.S. influence may have had to do with its condemnation for the wave of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers in the Philippines which Duterte has encouraged.
The Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines spokesperson Jacqueline Ann De Guia does not see it this way:
“We would be generalizing too much if we were to accord the strengthening of ties with China with potentially the rise in human rights violation,” she said. “I hope it won’t equate to a direct correlation with human rights violations.”
Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella said that Duterte’s trip is set to be productive with the signing of a number of agreements with Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to GMA network.
“There will be a signing of several memoranda… and various deals of cooperation between the two countries,” Abella was quoted as saying.