Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is scheduled to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Boao Forum for Asia (BFA) in Hainan, China on Tuesday. The forum which brings together world leaders in the fields of politics and business to discuss further economic cooperation and innovation in Asia and between Asian and non-Asian partners, is a highly appropriate meeting place for Xi and Duterte given the current global economic climate.
Under Donald Trump, the US has decided to roll out trade policies that are uniquely hostile to China, although even traditional US allies including South Korea and Japan have been threatened in Trump’s protectionist trade war. Beyond Asia, even the EU has been threatened in a Trump trade war, as have neighbouring Canada and Mexico. The attitude of the Trump administration can therefore be described as anti-Chinese in a specific sense but in the long term, it has the potential to be anti-Asian in totality as both the strong industrial economies of north east Asia and the rapidly growing and increasingly diverse economies of ASEAN necessarily pose the kind of “threat” that Trump imagines any successful economy might post to the US.
In this sense, while some Filipinos continue to argue over Duterte’s clear economic and security pivot towards China, in short order, this debate could become pointless as the US seeks to sever itself from the wider Asian economic space, while still wanting its fingers in proverbial security ‘pie’ of the region, particularly in respect of the South China Sea.
This week President Duterte reiterated that he seeks neutrality in all wider global conflicts. This itself is in keeping with Duterte’s unique model for 21st century non-alignment that The Philippines has pioneered in ASEAN since 2016. Far from wanting to substitute a lopsided post colonial relationship with the US for a similar one with China, Duterte simply wants to do business with China, engage in win-win conflict resolutions in respect of the South China Sea and have the ability to receive weapons which are necessary in order to preserve the security of the country.
In each of these areas, China has proved itself to be both a reliable and respectful partner and in the long term, China will certainly prove to be a consistent partner unlike the United States which cannot even decide which one of its own competing geopolitical narratives to proffer. As Duterte stated just yesterday,
“So Americans, what values are you trying to impose on us? The values of Obama, the values of Trump, or your own national stupidity?”
In this context, while the US is confused in respect of its own future, China is the superpower that will shape the wider global future, in Asia and beyond. Far from being foolish to develop closer ties with China, it would be borderline treasonous for any Philippine leader to provoke China and create an atmosphere of hostility, in the same way that it would be foolish to kick a tiger rather than agree to a respectful friendship with a tiger.
Duterte understands this implicitly and so do most of his opponents. The differences is that while many in the Liberal Party realise they can fill their own pockets by working with often corrupt US based NGOs in order to undermine Duterte’s government, they fail to realise that in the long term, the US does not want to work with economically successful nations. This has always been the reality, but it is more true today than at any time in the recent or even distant past. In this sense, while some elite Filipinos can enrich themselves by creating a hostile atmosphere for China, in the long term they are only impoverishing their own nation by cutting it off from the go-to economic superpower of the 21st century.
This is why Germany, China, Canada, South Korea and Japan are all facing an increasingly economically hostile US. These very different nations have all found economic success and the new rules in Washington are that ‘someone else’s success equals domestic failure’. China takes an opposite approach, preferring to help other nations find their own success through cooperative endeavours where all sides are able to share the wealth. It is therefore natural that any developing nation would want China as a partner as such a partnership can only accelerate development and increase the diversity of any given domestic economy.
Just as his previous meetings with Xi have been a success, under the cloud of US trade wars, Duterte’s meeting next week could be his most important to-date as China too is realising more than ever that friendships in Asia will be more enduring than attempts at making deals with the stubborn leadership in Washington.