Diplomacy is rarely dull with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who pays his first state visit to China on Tuesday.
In his first 100 days representing 98 million Filipinos to the world, the 71-year-old former city mayor derided the United Nations as “stupid”, told US President Barack Obama to “go to hell” and said “f**k you” to the entire European Union.
Asia’s newest strongman also warned he might “break up” with the US as he seeks to realign the country’s foreign policy and end the Philippines’ semi-colonial dependence on the US.
It remains anybody’s guess what Duterte will say next week at his meeting with President Xi Jinping, but he can expect the full red-carpet treatment from his discerning host.
“Ever since President Duterte took office, China and the Philippines have been engaging in friendly interactions which have yielded a series of positive results,” China’s ambassador to Manila, Zho Jianhua, said in September.
“The clouds are fading away. The sun is rising over the horizon, and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.”
To sweeten the pot, yesterday a Foreign Ministry spokesperson announced China is supporting Duterte’s drugs war.
“President Duterte will also be engaged in activities related to drug control during his state visit to China. China and the Philippines are keeping in close touch about this,” the spokesperson said.
The friendly oratory followed an announcement on Wednesday that a Chinese tycoon was funding a “mega” drug rehabilitation facility to treat up to 10,000 patients.
By contrast, and much to Duterte’s annoyance, the US, EU, UN and human rights groups have all criticised his showpiece offensive for a wave of extrajudicial killings and vigilantism.
Asked how he would respond if Obama questioned the bloody killings, Duterte said, “Son of a b***h, I will swear at you at that forum. You must be respectful.”
Noting “clearly he’s a colourful guy,” Obama promptly cancelled his one-on-one meeting with Duterte. They later met informally and shook hands.
The relationship was “firm, very strong,” Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay suggested later.
For the Chinese, a crisis can look like an opportunity.
‘A normal thing to sell arms among nations’
“It’s a normal thing to sell arms, especially small arms, among nations and the arms trade is only one normal part of an international relationship,” Liu Youfa, deputy director of China Institute of International Studies, told dpa.
“But only when the relationship is good will different countries cooperate in the arms trade. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is small arms trade between China and Philippines for the anti-drug campaign.”
In October, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana confirmed he would be sourcing weapons from China and Russia as relations frazzle with traditional supplier the US.
Washington once hoped Manila would provide its primary pivot in an Asia rebalancing strategy. However, in September, Duterte asked US special forces to leave the Philippines.
The country could “live without” American financial aid, Lorenzana explained, and all joint patrols of the South China Sea were being suspended.
China claims ownership of most of the South China Sea within a “nine-dash line” against the competing claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
An international arbitration court in The Hague, Netherlands ruled on July 12 “there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within the (South China Sea) areas falling within the nine-dash line”.
China immediately rejected the ruling as “null and void”, but Obama told the Association of South-East Asian Nations (Asean) summit in Vientiane the decision was “binding”.
As Asean members tiptoed around the decision, all ears tuned to the organisation’s newest leader.
Duterte didn’t even raise The Hague.