Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives in the Philippines for his first state visit to the country, a traditional US ally that is a key prize as Beijing and Washington jostle for supremacy in the Pacific.
China won a windfall partner with the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has rattled the Philippines’ century-old bond with the US while courting trade and investment from the rising American rival.
Manila has said it hopes the two-day stopover, the first from a Chinese president in 13 years, will finally net signed deals for investment in major infrastructure projects promised by Beijing when Duterte visited two years ago.
However, even before Xi’s expected arrival Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of protestors descended on the Chinese embassy to voice opposition to closer ties with Beijing. “Philippines is not for sale,” the marchers chanted, as some brandished signs saying “China out of Philippine waters” in reference to a long-running dispute over the South China Sea.
At the same time, the mercurial leader has declared an end to what he characterised as the Philippines’ submissive relationship with the US, even calling then-US president Barack Obama a “son of a whore”. But relations have been warmer since Donald Trump became US president and dropped American criticism of Duterte’s anti-drug crackdown that has killed thousands.
The dispute over the resource-rich South China Sea, a key transit route for billions in trade, led to a freeze in Manila-Beijing relations, which thawed with Duterte’s pivot. China subsequently pledged USD 24 billion in loans and investments, but just a tiny portion has come through, prompting critics to say Duterte was tricked.
“The visit of the head of state of China will put pressure on the team (in Beijing),” Diokno added. Gregory Wyatt, director for business intelligence at PSA Philippines Consultancy, said big projects face many barriers in the Philippines, like right of way issues, regulatory approvals and political dissent.
Chinese investors poured money into online gaming, real estate, service providers and stakes in existing Filipino firms, but not into large-scale infrastructure or manufacturing, Wyatt said. While there was support in government for the latter, “that doesn’t mean that every bureaucrat, local politician, and the general public enthusiastically jumps on board”, Wyatt said.