Xi plays Duterte to send a message to Marcos Jr

By Richard Javad Heydarian

“I hope you will continue to play an important role in the friendly cooperation [between our countries],” Chinese President Xi Jinping told his guest at the Diaoyutai state guesthouse in Beijing this week.

His counterpart was no less than former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who famously lambasted his country’s Western allies in favor of warmer ties with Beijing throughout his 2016-2022 term in office.

According to the Chinese foreign ministry, the country’s paramount leader “appreciates the strategic choice Mr Duterte made to improve relations with China during his presidency”, and “China values its relations with the Philippines and is ready to work with the Philippines to promote the steady and sustained growth of bilateral relations.”

The Chinese leader and the former Filipino president were joined by Dutere’s former deputy executive secretary Salvador Medialdea and China’s State Counselor Wang Yi and Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Sun Weidong.

Both the timing and circumstances of the high-profile visit were curious if not controversial. It’s not clear whether Duterte, now a private citizen, fully coordinated his trip with Philippine authorities. The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has yet to take a stance on the ex-leader’s unexpected trip.

Supporters see the visit as a form of backdoor diplomacy, likely with the blessing of the current Ferdinand Marcos Jr administration, amid rising bilateral tensions over the South China Sea as well as expanding American military presence on Philippine soil under the new government.

For their part, critics are perturbed by the possibility of Beijing playing a “divide and conquer” game by leveraging its ties with the popular former Filipino president to put the incumbent under superpower pressure.

Whether Marcos Jr green-lighted the trip or not, the optics and timing of Duterte’s visit have raised more questions than optimism.

For starters, the trip came amid a sensitive cabinet reshuffle that saw West-friendly figures assuming top cabinet positions, including to the defense portfolio and, soon, likely also the foreign affairs department. The former president’s China visit also came just weeks after tensions within the ruling coalition reached a boiling point.

Vice President Sara Duterte, the daughter of the former president, resigned from the de facto ruling party (Lakas-CMD), shortly after Marcos’ allies demoted former president and current legislator Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in the congressional pecking order.

Both Arroyo and Duterte have been staunch supporters of robust ties with China, raising concerns that foreign policy disagreements are beginning to destabilize domestic politics.

It didn’t take long, however, for the former president himself to join in by directly questioning his successor’s key foreign policy thrust of improving security ties with the US.

In particular, Duterte warned against the implications of Marcos Jr’s expanded Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) deal, which permits the US Pentagon to preposition weapons and rotationally deploy troops to a host of military facilities across the Philippines, including those near Taiwan.

Echoing his Chinese interlocutors, Duterte publicly warned that the US would (illegally) place “nuclear warheads” in EDCA facilities, paving the way for a major conflict that would reduce the Philippines into a “graveyard if war comes.”

Throughout his six years in office, the former Filipino president largely undercut the EDCA deal – signed under the reformist Benigno Aquino III’s administration amid rising tensions with China in the South China Sea – by publicly opposing the Pentagon’s plans for prepositioning weapons systems in pre-designated facilities.

In a thinly veiled attack on the incumbent, Duterte maintained that it would be “pretty naive or [an act of] stupidity” to suppose Americans would not weaponize the EDCA sites against China, even as Marcos Jr repeatedly assured against any “offensive” usage of Philippine facilities by the US.

Unsatisfied with his public criticisms, Duterte upped the ante by arranging a direct meeting with the Chinese leadership. A recent Hall of Fame awardee by a pro-Beijing organization in the Philippines, Duterte felt confident enough to conduct an unprecedented diplomatic mission as a private citizen.

It’s highly likely that the move was planned without the full blessing of the incumbent administration, which has adopted both a more cautious and tougher stance on China. But Marcos Jr, who has repeatedly emphasized his preference for dialogue and diplomacy over confrontation, may have reluctantly greenlighted the visit as a form of backdoor diplomacy.

According to Hua Chunying, spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, “President Xi said he appreciates the strategic choice Mr Duterte made to improve relations with China during his presidency and his important contributions to friendly exchanges between the two countries” and emphasized the need for fostering “steady and sustained growth of bilateral relations.”

The Chinese paramount leader also expressed his hope that “Duterte will continue to play an important role in the friendly cooperation between the two countries.”

On his part, the former Filipino president said that preserving friendly relations between the two nations “serves the interests of the two peoples and conforms to the aspiration of the majority of the Philippine people” and vowed to personally support any initiatives accordingly.

On the surface, the exchanges seemed routine diplomacy. But they can also be interpreted as a direct challenge to both Marcos Jr’s mandate as well as his foreign policy direction, especially towards the US.

Moreover, Duterte’s China visit will likely not go down well among ordinary Filipinos. A recent authoritative survey found that 75% of Filipinos support closer Philippine-US defense ties as a hedge against China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea.

Major surveys have also consistently shown that Duterte, although popular while in office, was never in tune with the Filipino people’s sentiments on foreign policy.

A vast majority of Filipinos have expressed mistrust towards China and seek a tougher stance on the maritime disputes. It remains to be seen, however, how Marcos Jr will manage the latest challenge to his foreign policy from an ex-leader who is supposed to be his key ally.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on Twitter at @Richeydarian