Philippines president cozies up to China after talking tough about the U.S.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, left, greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi as Duterte arrives in Beijing on Oct. 19, 2016.
(Toto Lozano / Presidential Photographers Division)

The tough-talking new president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has heaped effusive praise on China in the opening days of a state visit to Beijing, a marked contrast to his often profane rhetoric about the United States, his country’s historical ally.

That startling contrast, which may foreshadow a major shake-up in the East Asian security order, played out Wednesday against a backdrop of violence in Manila, where anti-U.S. protesters gathered outside the American Embassy. Police repeatedly plowed through the crowd with a van, injuring dozens of people.

Duterte, 71, arrived in Beijing on Tuesday night, kicking off a four-day state visit; on Thursday, he will meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“The only hope of the Philippines economically, I’ll be frank with you, is China,” Duterte told state broadcaster CCTV on Wednesday. He called the trip “the defining moment of my presidency.”

The visit would have been unthinkable even three months ago, when tension simmered between the two countries over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Yet Duterte, in a stark break from his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, has adopted a conciliatory tone toward China while stoking anti-U.S. sentiment, pleasing Beijing while exacerbating divisions at home.


China is the only country to come out freely and a firm statement that they are supporting the fight against drugs in my country.

— Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte, a notoriously foulmouthed former mayor, has called President Obama a “son of a whore” and delivered profanity-laced tirades against the European Union and United Nations. He has called for an end to long-standing U.S.-Philippines military exercises.

Wednesday’s violence in Manila occurred as hundreds of protesters gathered in front of the U.S. Embassy to demand that the United States, the Philippines’ onetime colonial ruler, remove its forces from bases in the country.

Video of the incident, which was posted widely on Filipino news websites, showed demonstrators attacking a police van with sticks and their fists, as rows of blue-shielded riot police stood by in tight rows. The van then plows through the crowd, knocking protesters over and crushing some beneath its wheels. (Warning: The video displays graphic content.)

Although dozens were injured, early reports indicated there were no fatalities.

Duterte’s foreign policy leanings are inextricably tied to his anti-drug campaign, a hallmark of his early tenure. He campaigned for president on the promise of eradicating illegal drugs within six months, without regard for human rights. Since his June 30 inauguration, thousands of suspected drug dealers have been killed by police and vigilantes. The U.S., U.N., and EU have repeatedly called for the killings to stop.

“China is the only country to come out freely and a firm statement that they are supporting the fight against drugs in my country,” Duterte told the official New China News Agency on Tuesday. “The other countries, United States, EU, instead of helping us, they know that we are short of money.... All they had to do was to criticize. China never criticized.”

Experts have cast Duterte’s cold shoulder to the U.S. as a high-profile gambit. According to a September poll by Social Weather Stations, a Manila-based research institution, 76% of Filipinos place “much trust” in the U.S., while only 22% feel the same about China.

The story so far: What makes Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, who compared himself to Hitler, so popular »

Only a few months ago, Manila was the greatest roadblock to China’s achieving its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea. Under the last president, Aquino, the Philippines filed a petition to the Permanent Court of Arbitration seeking to clarify the sea’s maritime boundaries. In July, the court issued a stinging rebuke to Beijing, ruling that its actions in the sea violated international law. Beijing immediately declared the ruling “null and void.”

Duterte has said he will not bring up the issue during his state visit. He probably will seek Chinese infrastructure investment, including help building railways on Luzon and Mindanao islands.

“When I started looking at [South China Sea issues] 20 years ago, it was something only the elite cared about,” said Ian Storey, a Southeast Asia security expert at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. “Most Filipinos were concerned about where they get their next meal from. But that’s changed over the past 10 years. This has become an issue for Filipino nationalists — this idea that China is stealing what rightfully belongs to the Philippines, particularly its resources, oil and gas and everything.

“If [Duterte] offends a key constituency in the country such as the business community, the armed forces or political rivals, we might see a situation in which he is impeached or threatened with impeachment, like [former President Joseph] Estrada,” he said. Estrada was ousted in 2001 during a popular uprising in Manila.

In Cagayan de Oro, a farming and industrial city on the north coast of Mindanao, several people said in interviews that they welcomed U.S. military aid — a major force in the region’s struggle against separatist movements and Islamist terrorism — and felt uncertainty over whether China would be as effective.

Locals remember when terrorists bombed a row of restaurants in 2013, killing six people and injuring 48; security in the city remained tight, with strict security checkpoints on roads and at the city’s top university.

“It’s good that we use American aid in the Philippines,” said Kirk Nagac, an unemployed 27-year-old, as he filled out job applications in a public park. “American aid means more advanced equipment. It can provide things that the Philippines doesn’t have. There’s a conflict between China and the Philippines — the only country that helps the Philippines is the USA.”

China has welcomed Duterte’s rapprochement. Early this month, Chinese officials lifted a ban on the import of Philippine bananas and pineapples, which have faced restrictions for four years amid diplomatic tension. China also may lift restrictions on other fruit imports — mangoes, coconut, dragon fruit — in coming days.

Last week, a Chinese billionaire, Huang Rulun, pledged to build a drug rehabilitation center in the Philippines that can treat 10,000 patients. Duterte has called the offer a symbol of Beijing’s goodwill.

“The ice is melting,” said Xu Liping, a professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “China in principle supports [Duterte’s domestic policies] because he’s trying to fight against drugs. And how he does it, that’s the Philippines’ internal affair.”

Times staff writer Kaiman reported from Beijing and special correspondent Jennings from Cagayan de Oro, the Philippines. Nicole Liu and Yingzhi Yang in The Times’ Beijing bureau also contributed to this report.

For more news from Asia, follow @JRKaiman on Twitter


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