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Building Bridges
The Philippine head of state's visit to China further consolidates bilateral ties
By Wen Qing  ·  2019-09-09  ·   Source: NO. 37 SEPTEMBER 12, 2019

Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing on August 29 (XINHUA)

On September 1, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte wrapped up an official visit to China which saw him fly over half of China from Beijing in the north to Foshan in the south. From August 28 to September 1, he met with Chinese top leaders, signed multiple cooperation agreements, had a photo opportunity with action star Jackie Chan and watched several basketball games.

Duterte is very familiar to Chinese people since he has been a constant guest, visiting almost every six months on average over the past three years since he took office. This was his fifth trip to China and his second visit to China in the past four months.

Since Duterte became president, Sino-Philippine ties have taken an upturn from the once frozen relations, consolidating, uplifting and continuously achieving tangible outcomes due to the two sides' efforts. This trip served to further strengthen the bond and contribute to future pragmatic cooperation between the two countries.

Setting the tone

One of the most important tasks of Duterte's visit was to set the tone for bilateral relations at the highest level, so as to lead relations toward sound development against outside noise, Xu Liping, a researcher on Southeast Asian studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said.

Although Sino-Philippine ties have been developing smoothly in recent years, external forces have not stopped trying to provoke friction and drive a wedge between the two sides. Under such a backdrop, positive signals at high levels are critical to steady and pragmatic cooperation moving forward.

On August 29, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing for the eighth time, with the two leaders reiterating their commitment to pushing forward ties. Xi said he is willing to work with Duterte to continue to seize the current trend from a strategic and long-term perspective, leading to the sound development of bilateral ties. "This will not only benefit the two countries and their peoples, but will also add positive energy to regional peace and stability," Xi said.

"I cherish the close friendship with President Xi," Duterte responded, adding that China means a lot to the Philippines and developing bilateral ties is a project that will last for generations.

Good wishes to consolidate upward momentum were reiterated during Duterte's meeting with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, where Premier Li said he values Sino-Philippine ties and the two countries' time-honored friendship, which has been on a positive trajectory over the past three years. The interests shared by both sides outweigh any discord, Premier Li said. Duterte added that the Philippines will never confront China.

This trip also reconfirmed the positioning of bilateral ties, Xu said. During Xi's visit to the Philippines last year, the two countries agreed to upgrade bilateral relations to a comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership. This requires that the two sides deal with bilateral issues from a strategic and long-term view rather than being affected by single issues, Xu said.

The two presidents pointed the direction for the future development of bilateral ties, said Shen Shishun, a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies. The countries should enhance close ties, reject negative influence from historical issues and external instigation, and deal with divergence properly. The stability and cooperation between the two sides should never be sacrificed, he said.

Fruitful results

Strengthened bilateral cooperation in the economic and trade areas was also high on the agenda during Duterte's visit. The two countries signed at least six agreements to boost cooperation in higher education, science and technology, customs and border security, and trade and infrastructure development.

Duterte expressed his hope that China will continue to help the Philippines in economic development and infrastructure construction. The country is experiencing an infrastructure boom under the guidance of Duterte's Build, Build, Build program, which aims to promote internal connectivity to attract more investors. This program could synergize with the Belt and Road Initiative to implement major cooperative projects in such areas as infrastructure construction, industrial parks, telecommunications and energy.

During a meeting with Chinese business people on August 30 in Beijing, Duterte said an agreement was reached on the development of industrial parks where Chinese investors and manufacturers can set up factories in the Philippines. The construction of the first industrial park is expected to start in the first half of 2020. Eager to attract more Chinese investment and assure Chinese investors, Duterte pledged zero-tolerance toward corruption.

Economic links have grown rapidly over the past years. China is now the Philippine's largest trading partner, third largest export market and top import supplier. In 2018, the Philippines received 1.25 million Chinese tourists, a year-on-year increase of 30 percent, while China has become the second largest source of tourists to the Philippines and the fastest growing international tourist market.

During his meeting with Duterte, Xi also expressed China's willingness to import more high-quality fruits and agricultural products from the Philippines, and will send experts to the country to share agricultural and fishery technology.

On the South China Sea issue, which has been overblown in the past by outsiders, Duterte expressed his view that the path to peacefully resolving the dispute is through cooperation rather than confrontation.

The president has been under fire over his refusal to confront China by both external and internal forces. However, he continues to insist on a cooperative approach. Duterte said that as country coordinator for China-ASEAN relations, his country is glad to work with China and other ASEAN countries to try to conclude Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea negotiations within his term in office. "Western countries are not part of the COC negotiations, so they should not hinder the efforts of the countries in the region," he said.

"The COC aims to establish a framework of rules, and provide a principle basis for peace, stability and development in the South China Sea," Xu said. Duterte's positive attitude on COC consultations reflects the willingness to cooperate with China, to shelve differences and focus on cooperation.

There could be more progress if the South China Sea issue is dealt with correctly. In his meeting with Duterte, Xi said both countries can take a "bigger step" to jointly develop offshore oil and gas. The two sides announced the establishment of an intergovernmental joint steering committee and a working group among relevant enterprises on oil and gas cooperation to promote substantial progress in joint exploration.

Sino-Philippine ties hit a historical low in 2013 when the Benigno Aquino III administration filed a suit against China with an international arbitration tribunal regarding the South China Sea. However, bilateral ties consist of more than this issue, and the only way to ease tensions and solve the issue is through pragmatic political dialogue, a fact that has already been proven by the sound development of relations in the past three years.

China and the Philippines have sent a signal to the rest of the world that the littoral countries are capable of dealing with related issues and reaping benefits together. "This will provide a good example in the future," said Chen Fengying, a senior researcher with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.

"Duterte's visit shows that Sino-Philippine ties have entered a stable and peaceful growing period. Mutual beneficial bilateral cooperation will continue to deepen, which will be a good model for China and ASEAN country development," Shen said.

Copyedited by Rebeca Toledo

Comments to wenqing@bjreview.com

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