The Philippines will court Beijing for further investment when Chinese President Xi Jinping visits Manila next month, temporarily sidestepping issues in the South China Sea as it hedges its bets in the ongoing trade and strategic tussles between China and the United States, observers say.
While the nation’s strongman President Rodrigo Duterte has made waves with his pivot towards Beijing – including making proclamations of “love” for Xi and a tongue-in-cheek suggestion the Philippines be made a Chinese province – his administration has said it pursues an “independent foreign policy” that does not rely on any one power.
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That geopolitical dance with China and the US, its traditional ally on defence, will be put to the test when Xi heads to Manila after this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea, which wraps up on November 18.
At least five economic deals are expected to be signed during Xi’s trip – his first to the country since Duterte took office in 2016 – including more loan agreements for infrastructure projects under Manila’s “Build, Build, Build” development initiative, according to Philippine Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez.
Analysts say there may also be progress on bilateral consultative mechanisms and joint energy development projects in the South China Sea.
“The trip will further cultivate relations between the Philippines and China,” said Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at University of the Philippines-Diliman. “There’s going to be more economic deals and more cooperation. The Philippine government under Duterte will take advantage of this; as China can help to alleviate some of the inflation the country is experiencing.”
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Despite the closer ties, a 2016 international tribunal ruling in favour of the Philippines in its territorial dispute with China in the strategic waterway had not been forgotten, Arugay said.
“The arbitration ruling is only temporarily put aside, with an emphasis on temporarily,” he said.
Duterte has flip-flopped this year between praising Beijing and stressing the need for cooperation, to saying he is prepared to go to war over the South China Sea’s natural resources.
On his visit to Beijing in October 2016, he secured US$24 billion worth of investment and loan pledges from China. Critics, however, have said that much of that money has never seen the light of day, due to the cancellation of or delay to Chinese-funded projects.