After the relentless barrage of verbal abuse and negative sentiment aimed at Barack Obama and the US, coupled with increasingly complimentary statements toward Beijing, it was only a matter of time before Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte put an end to the speculation if and when he would officially pivot the country's long-held diplomatic alliance away from the US and toward China. He did so today when, during a visit to China's capital, Duterte announced his "separation" from the United States, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
Duterte is currently in Beijing, where he is visiting with at least 200 business people to pave the way for what he calls a new commercial alliance as relations with longtime ally Washington deteriorate.
"In this venue, your honours, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States," Duterte told Chinese and Philippine business people, to applause, at a forum in the Great Hall of the People attended by Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli. "Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also. America has lost."
Duterte's efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea in a case brought by the previous administration in Manila, marks a reversal in foreign policy since the 71-year-old former mayor took office on June 30. As Reuters adds, his trade secretary, Ramon Lopez, said $13.5 billion in deals would be signed during the China trip.
An even more dramatic admission came moments later when Duterte also voiced his desire to expand the newly hachced Asian axis to include Russia as well.
"I've realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world - China, Philippines and Russia. It's the only way," Duterte told his Beijing audience.
Still, in keeping with the semi flip-flopping nature of his administration, a few hours after Duterte's speech, his top economic policymakers released a statement saying that, while Asian economic integration was "long overdue", that did not mean the Philippines was turning its back on the West.
"We will maintain relations with the West but we desire stronger integration with our neighbours," said Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez and Economic Planning Secretary Ernesto Pernia in a joint statement. "We share the culture and a better understanding with our region. The Philippines is integrating with ASEAN, China, Japan and South Korea."
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Unlike Obama's final arrival in China in the late summer which was met several very embarrassing logistical and diplomatic snafus, China pulled out all the stops to welcome Duterte, including a marching band complete with baton-twirling band master at his official greeting ceremony outside the Great Hall of the People, which is not extended to most leaders. President Xi Jinping, meeting Duterte earlier in the day, called the visit a "milestone" in ties. Xi told Duterte that China and the Philippines were brothers and they could "appropriately handle disputes", though he did not mention the South China Sea in remarks made in front of reporters.
"I hope we can follow the wishes of the people and use this visit as an opportunity to push China-Philippines relations back on a friendly footing and fully improve things," Xi said.
Following their meeting, during which Duterte said relations with China had entered a new "springtime", Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said the South China Sea issue was not the sum total of relations. "The two sides agreed that they will do what they agreed five years ago, that is to pursue bilateral dialogue and consultation in seeking a proper settlement of the South China Sea issue," Liu said.
As a result of Duterte's pivot, China now has a key supporter in the ongoing geopolitical disagreement involving the contested territory in the South China Sea. China claims most of the energy-rich South China Sea through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Neighbours Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims. In 2012, China seized the disputed Scarborough Shoal and denied Philippine fishermen access to its fishing grounds.
Liu said the shoal was not mentioned and he did not answer a question about whether Philippine fishermen would be allowed there. He said both countries had agreed on coastguard and fisheries cooperation, but did not give details.
Duterte on Wednesday said the South China Sea arbitration case would "take the back seat" during talks, and that he would wait for the Chinese to bring up the issue rather than doing so himself. Xi said issues that could not be immediately be resolved should be set aside, according to the Chinese foreign ministry.
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Meanwhile, anti-US sentiment is building in the Philippines, which is also not surprising, after Duterte previously called Barack Obama a "son of a bitch" and told his to "go to hell", while alluding to severing ties with the old colonial power. On Wednesday, to the cheers of hundreds of Filipinos in Beijing, Duterte said Philippine foreign policy was veering towards China. "I will not go to America anymore. We will just be insulted there," Duterte said. "So time to say goodbye my friend."
As we reported earlier, about 1,000 anti-U.S. protesters gathered outside the U.S. embassy in Manila calling for the removal of U.S. troops from the southern island of Mindanao. As the standoff escalated, the local police ran over protesters who were preparing to storm the embassy.
As a result of this dramatic collapse in US-Philipinne relations, the next US president will have their hands full with not only the rapidly escalation standoff between Russia and the US in Syria, but will be rushing the mend relations with one of the oldest US allies in the Pacific rim.