China’s Xi Jinping wants to “add fuel” to Philippine friendship on first state visit

Getting warm.
Getting warm.
Image: Reuters/Roman Pilipey
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Since Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, he’s been noticeably warm to China, and cold to the country’s traditional ally the United States. Soon after he was elected, he made a state visit to China—where he called this the “springtime” of their relations—and chose not to use a 2016 international tribunal decision in favor of the Philippines to push back against China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea.

China, in turn, has made $24 billion in investment and credit pledges, and opened a Chinese consulate in Duterte’s hometown of Davao. And on Tuesday, Xi Jinping will make the first state visit by a Chinese president to the Southeast Asian nation in 13 years.

Ahead of the visit, the Philippine Star published an affectionate letter to the country from Xi, in which he expressed happiness over how the two nations’ consultations over the South China Sea had improved ties, and called on people on both sides to deepen mutual trust and “add fuel” to the fire of friendliness between the two nations:

We need to strengthen people-to-people ties to keep China-Philippine relations as strong as ever. China and the Philippines are very close to each other in terms of geographical location, ancestral ties and cultural background. Friendly exchanges between our two peoples are an endless source of strength for our relations. As the saying goes, the flames rise high when everybody joins to add fuel.

He also said that the Philippines is a vital part of the maritime Silk Road—a reference to China’s grand globe-spanning Belt-and-Road plan for investing in infrastructure that will increase China’s international influence, but the US has warned risks putting countries in China’s debt.

Xi’s visit to the country comes just after US vice president Mike Pence, speaking at this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, promised that regional leaders the US would offer a better alternative—one that wouldn’t be a “constricting belt or one-way road.”

It also comes as some political commentators suggest that Duterte’s honeymoon period with voters could be ending, after a Philippine survey by research group Social Weather Stations showed a dip in his popularity in the summer, and linked the numbers with more aggressive comments from Duterte over the South China Sea issue. In August, after reports that Philippine aircraft flying near China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea were getting radio warnings from China, Duterte told an audience that China should “temper its behavior.”

In a more recent survey, conducted in September, satisfaction with Duterte had risen, and ahead of Xi’s trip he apparently told Chinese state-run media that the two countries’ relationship was like a fire in full bloom. (In his open letter, Xi also said the two countries’ relations were like a rainbow after the rain.)

Without a doubt, Xi will see a far warmer welcome than when he was in the country for a 2015 APEC summit under previous president Benigno Aquino. Philippine media then reported that Aquino appeared to be snubbing Xi during a four-minute-long red carpet walk. Under Aquino, the Philippines sought UN arbitration for tensions arising from the sea dispute, after the Philippines navy found Chinese fishing trawlers in its exclusive economic zone, and Chinese vessels turned up to support the fishermen.

Duterte and Xi will meet for bilateral talks on Tuesday, followed by joint press statements and a state banquet. Every detail of the visit will be scrutinized, including whether the banquet will feature the kind of homespun fare Duterte favors or a different kind of menu. Duterte has suggested he may have his youngest daughter Kitty sing a song in Chinese for Xi. About 5,000 police will secure the visit, locking down areas Xi is expected to visit, and classes and work at government offices have been canceled.