Tuesday, May 02, 2017

Duterte's Pivot to China

On May 1st, Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte stated that he was open to joint military exercises with China after visiting a Chinese warship docked in Davao City. His comments come at an interesting time. Two days earlier, he had a phone call with American president Donald Trump. During this phone call, Trump invited him to visit the White House. As China continues its actions in the South China Sea, the United States has continued to be concerned about maritime security in the region. Trump’s invitation may signal the United States trying to keep the Philippines from moving too close to China. Duterte’s recent comments and his talk with Trump may signal him trying to balance both powers.

Duterte has been a controversial president for a multitude of reasons. However, his cozying up to China has raised eyebrows. In July 2016, the Philippines’ territorial dispute in the South China Sea was resolved in the Philippines’ favor. However, shortly afterwards, Duterte announced that he did not think that the Philippines would be able to just take the Scarborough Shoals back from China. He also insinuated that the United States would not help the Philippines if a military confrontation ensued.

Duterte has done much to distance the Philippines from the United States, which has complicated the US-Philippines relationship. It seems like Duterte is trying to appease China. China is an important economic partner to the Philippines. In the Chinese Vice Premier’s latest visit to the Philippines in March, the countries signed a new trade deal and two agreements for major infrastructure projects in the Philippines.

The phone call with Trump may show that Duterte wants to gain more from the United States as well. The Philippines is currently a part of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. The United States is one of the Philippines’ largest foreign investors. Duterte is still enjoying the benefits of a relationship with the United States. He realizes that there are a lot of benefits to enjoy with a closer relationship with China. It seems his loyalty lies with whoever is willing to be beneficial to the Philippines. It will be interesting to see if Duterte can continue this balancing act as things continue to heat up in the South China Sea. 

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