Xi visits Philippines as China, US wrangle for supremacy
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte waits on stage to pose with other leaders for a group photo before the start of the ASEAN-Plus Three (APT) summit on the sidelines of the 33rd Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Singapore on November 15, 2018.
Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP
Xi visits Philippines as China, US wrangle for supremacy
Cecil Morella (Agence France-Presse) - November 20, 2018 - 6:55am

MANILA, Philippines — Chinese President Xi Jinping lands Tuesday for his first state visit to the Philippines, a traditional US ally that is a key prize as Beijing and Washington jostle for supremacy in the Pacific.

China won a windfall partner with the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has rattled the Philippines' century-old bond with the US while courting trade and investment from the rising American rival.

Manila has said it hopes the two-day stopover, the first from a Chinese president in 13 years, will finally net signed deals for investment in major infrastructure projects promised by Beijing when Duterte visited two years ago.

China has dispersed tens of billions of dollars in loans since 2013 as it expands its political influence globally, countering the American hegemony that characterized the post-World War II order, especially in Asia.

Duterte has enthusiastically embraced Xi, even setting aside a key 2016 ruling from an international tribunal that declared as without basis Beijing's expansive claim over the South China Sea.

At the same time, the mercurial leader has declared an end to the Philippines' submissive relationship with the US, even calling then-US president Barack Obama "son of a whore". 

But relations have been warmer since Donald Trump became US president and dropped American criticism of Duterte's anti-drug crackdown that has killed thousands.

The dispute over the resource-rich South China Sea, a key transit route for billions in trade, led to a freeze in Manila-Beijing relations which thawed with Duterte's pivot.

Duterte taken for a ride?

China subsequently pledged $24 billion in loans and investments, but just a tiny portion has come through, which has prompted critics to say Duterte was tricked.

Meanwhile, others have warned of a "debt trap" citing China's lending record with the rest of the developing world.

Filipino analyst Richard Heydarian said China's pledges induced Manila to "soft-pedal" on the South China Sea issue, but failed to hold up its end of the bargain.

"We know there was a geopolitical calculation," he told AFP. "What is the incentive to rush if Duterte has been giving them whatever they want?"

Filipino Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno conceded last week the delays were partly due to China's unfamiliarity with the Philippine bidding process, but didn't hide his wish for things to accelerate. 

"The visit of the head of state of China will put pressure on the team (in Beijing)," Diokno added.

Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy, said big projects face many barriers in the Philippines, like right of way issues, regulatory approvals and political dissent.

"The foreign investment has come, the infrastructure loans have not," he added.

Chinese investments in the Philippines surged more than five-fold in the first six months of the year after a 67 percent expansion last year, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a Manila visit last month.

Two-way trade also topped 10 percent over both periods, he added.

Chinese investors poured money into online gaming, real estate, service providers and stakes in existing Filipino firms, but not into large-scale infrastructure or manufacturing, Wyatt said.

While there was support in government for the latter, "that doesn't mean that every bureaucrat, local politician, and the general public enthusiastically jumps on board", Wyatt said.

As It Happens
LATEST UPDATE: November 22, 2018 - 7:38pm

Former Deputy Speaker Lorenzo "Erin" Tañada calls on Filipinos to "help the administration be alert and protect the national interest" ahead of the scheduled visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping this week.

"This is an 'All Hands on Deck' situation, because our sovereignty is on the line. There are issues on Filipino jobs, public debt, and national territory to be agreed on that will affect us all for generations to come," Tañada says in a statement.

Xi is set to visit from Tuesday, November 20, to Wednesday, November 21. His visit signals 13 years since the last state visit of a Chinese president during the Arroyo administration.

"We know that the Chinese heads of state are shrewd negotiators and they will not waste this visit without closing key agreements. The last time we had a visit from China—President Hu Jintao in 2005—they were able to extract the highly questionable Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) from President Arroyo. We do not want a repeat of that or give up more of our sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea," the Liberal Party senatorial candidate says.

Tañada, who is a senatorial aspirant, says he himself will be watching for any agreements relating to loans and the protection of Filipino jobs, "in view of information that while 6 million Filipinos are unemployed, the government also permitted the entry of more than 3 million Chinese workers in the last two years."

November 22, 2018 - 7:38pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping has written President Rodrigo Duterte to extend his gratitude for the friendship and hospitality extended to him during his state visit to Manila.

"During my visit, I had talks with you, and held meetings with House Speaker Gloria Arroyo and Senate President Vicente Sotto III. We had in-depth exchange of views, reached important agreement on our bilateral relations and issues of shared interest, and witness the signing of a series of cooperation documents. I am truly pleased with the fruitful outcomes of this visit," he says in a letter released by the Chinese Embassy.

"During the visit, I was once again deeply touched by your sincerity and determination to grow our bilateral relations and by the friendly sentiment of the Philippine people toward the Chinese people. I am also deeply impressed by your insight into China-Philippines relations and the current international situation, which proves once again that China and the Philippines are partners in a common journey toward peace and development," Xi also says in his letter.

"I set great store by China-Philippines relations and value my personal friendship with you, Mr. President. I will work with you to strengthen political mutual trust and deepen practical cooperation in all fields so that the tree of China-Philippines friendship will grow more luxuriant and bear more fruits."

November 20, 2018 - 2:36pm

The camp of Sen. Antonio Trillanes releases a copy of the supposed China draft of the framework for the joint oil exploration deal with the Philippines.

The draft says that the two countries have agreed to conduct joint explorations for oil and gas in the South China Sea "[in] accordance with the principles of mutual respect, fairness and mutual benefit, flexibility and pragmatism and consensus."

The draft also states that the joint deal "shall not affect" the position on sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of the two countries in the disputed sea.

China claims it has historic rights over virtually the entire resource-rich South China Sea based on the "nine-dash line," which was invalidated in 2016 in the winning case of the Philippines against the Asian giant before an international tribunal in the Hague. 

This proposed framework, however, is likely to face a legal hurdle in the Philippines due to questions on sovereignty and its implications on the Hague ruling. 

Under Article XII, Section 2 of the 1987 Constitution, the "exploration, development, and utilization of natural resources shall be under the full control and supervision of the [Philippine] State."

November 20, 2018 - 12:07pm

Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.

November 20, 2018 - 9:10am

Former Solicitor General Florin Hilbay says President Rodrigo Duterte has rolled out the red carpet for China’s rule over the West Philippine Sea with Chinese President Xi Jinping's visit to the Philippines.

He adds that the proposed joint exploration deal between the Philippines and China is illegal and unconstitutional. The terms for a joint exploration deal with China and the proposed lifting of the oil exploration ban in the disputed waters are expected to be discussed during Xi's visit.

"Our victory meant we could uphold our economic sovereignty and have full control over the resources in that area which, according to the 2016 Hague ruling, is not shared with China. Under our Constitution, it constitutes part of our national territory.  But a joint agreement with China is essentially a waiver of the decision in Philippines v. China. For Duterte to bargain this away and let China have their own way over our natural resources is a complete betrayal of the trust that the Filipino people gave him in May 2016," the former solicitor general added. ##

As the main agent in the 2013 case against China's claim over virtually the entire South China Sea, it was Hilbay's task to convince the tribunal that it has jurisdiction under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to hear the sea dispute.

The Philippines won the case against China in 2016.

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