Four months into his term, President Rodrigo Duterte is becoming a bit more predictable in that you can expect to hear more of his shocking pronouncements, followed by a raft of explanations polished with diplomatese by his spokesmen.
What happened in China? Feathers were ruffled when the 71-year-old former-mayor-turned-President told Filipino and Chinese business and political leaders at the Great Hall of the People of his decision to dissociate himself with the country’s long-time ally, the United States. “Your honors, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States. Both in military, maybe not social, but economic [terms]also.”
All that have been said and done during his four-day state visit to China, with his entourage of 500 government officials and businessmen – the multi-billion dollar deals between Chinese and Filipino companies – were topped off by those words from the chief executive.
In an initial reaction, the US Embassy in Manila said Mr. Duterte’s pronouncements were creating “unnecessary tension.” Outgoing Ambassador Philip Goldberg then sought clarification from Malacañang.
To the US, the Philippines is a critically important ally – a country which is strategically in the heart of Asia and a perfect complement to American military supremacy should serious armed conflict erupt in the region.
A semblance of clarity came on Friday, a day after Mr. Duterte let loose his explosive pronouncements in China, with his economic team issuing a statement regarding what the China trip was all about: regional economic rebalancing for closer integration in Asia.
The likes of Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez 3rd, Trade Secretary Ramon Lopez, Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno and Information and Communications Technology Secretary Rodolfo Salalima were on the defense, blowing out the smoke of ambiguity from the President’s latest bombshell on foreign relations.
Explaining the four-day state visit to China, the economic team played on the need for a closer integration in Asia. “This is why the President prioritized foreign trips to the Asean and Asia. As a result, the Philippines has now opened more widely its opportunities for trade and investment to a market of 1.8 billion people across the region.”
In smothering the embers of Mr. Duterte’s remarks regarding the separation from the US, his Cabinet men were explicit in saying that the ties that bind the two nations will not actually be severed.
The President himself told reporters at a news conference upon his arrival in Davao City: You have to take my words in the context of what I have been saying all along. It’s not severance of ties. When you say severance of ties, you cut the diplomatic relations. I cannot do that.
He further explained that the “separation” he mentioned in Beijing only meant charting “another way” in foreign policy. This other way has yet to take shape, but what was made clear was that under his leadership, the Philippines will no longer simply follow what the US tells the country to do. “In the past and until I became President, we always followed what the United States wanted. I won’t [follow],” he said.
What comes across more audibly now, however, is a new tune hummed by the Philippines and China in their revitalized relations, particularly on the economic front.
“China has committed to open its trade and capital markets … We will maintain relations with the West, but we desire stronger integration with our neighbors. We share the oriental culture conducive to better understanding with our regional partners,” Duterte’s economic team said in a statement.
Unwrapping a yet more pleasant surprise, the President announced on Sunday that the Chinese leadership has granted his request to tell their fishermen to stay away from the contested rich fishing grounds of the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal.
Some tunes take time to get used to and must be heard over and over again before they can be hummed with confidence, and the seeds of economic harmony between Manila and Beijing are no different. It may be just a matter of time before the rest of both countries and this part of the world catch on and start humming along.