The 300-strong entourage of Filipino business leaders tagging along President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China shows the eagerness of the local business community to clinch deals with the world’s second biggest economy.
At stake in this trip is not just the billion-dollar investment pacts and funding assistance between the two countries that could be had from the trip if the negotiations turn out right.
More importantly, for President Duterte, he will have a perfect chance to show how he would translate his popularity back home into persuasive, diplomatic skills on the negotiating table in foreign territory.
He may have decided to approach China without brashly wielding for now the scepter of victory handed down to the Philippines by the international arbitral court on the South China Sea dispute, but surely in this business trip Duterte’s vast delegation could brandish this market economy’s “rising star” from the East, as described by global lending institutions, including the Washington-based World Bank. With more than a 100 million, mostly young population, this consumer-driven, strategically located economy, is not likely to be easily dismissed by any sovereign business partner worth our salt.
Duterte’s unilaterally declared pivot from the country’s traditional military allies and trading partners in a critical shift in foreign policy will face its first judgment by the results of this trip.
China will also be the focus of the global klieg lights here – how its leadership would open the doors to new possibilities in foreign relations with their little brown neighbors across the disputed South China Sea. More than the Filipino people, the rest of the world will be watching how Beijing would handle the Philippine leader’s propositionings since he came into power, clearly attempting to thaw the frosty relations of the past where the two countries stood at odds over maritime sovereignty.
The steps being taken by Mr. Duterte may be unorthodox, his approach bereft of cordial regard for Manila’s historical ties with Washington and its allies, but it is nonetheless a landmark move aimed at finding an alternative future for Philippine trade and commerce, as well as that of its Asean neighbors. The President also appears to seek the forging of a new order of peace on this side of the globe that could erase the conflict scenarios on the drawing boards of military institutions as both sides try to pursue the benefits of maritime resources that abound between them.
This is also a time to assuage political and investor anxiety over the security situation in the country. Not to recklessly dismiss apprehensions as expressed by some think tanks keenly watching the local scenario unfold, such as that of the latest Philippines Country Risk Report by BMI Research of the Fitch Group. “We expect the security situation in the Philippines to worsen over the coming months due to the Duterte administration’s heavy-handed approach on crime and drugs, as well as the military’s conflict with the Abu Sayaff militant group in the South,” the report said.
“The government’s crackdown on these outlaws is likely to lead to greater reprisals and an increase in frequency of terror attacks. Accordingly, we have downgraded Philippines’ short-term political index score to 64.6 from 66.3 previously,” the research outfit said.
It is, indeed, imperative for Mr. Duterte’s visit to China to succeed in terms of achieving the desired mutual economic benefits for the people of the two countries, and nurturing the seeds of a lasting solution to the geopolitical conflict that has long served to divide them.