MANILA - President Rodrigo Duterte left for China Wednesday afternoon to attend the second Belt and Road Forum amid anticipation on whether or not he would raise Manila’s concerns over rising tensions with Beijing over the disputed South China Sea.
Duterte's flight took off the Villamor Airbase in Pasay City past 3:35 p.m. and is expected to arrive in Beijing past 7 p.m., his fourth visit as chief executive in his nearly 3-year presidency.
For this official visit, Duterte is expected to push for Manila's interests in Beijing’s global infrastructure plan that could set the stage for the world economic landscape in the years to come.
The ambitious Belt and Road initiative plans to link China with Africa, the rest of Asia, and Europe through a network of ports, railways, roads and industrial parks.
“It’s a chance for the Philippines, for President Duterte to participate in this broad platform for economic development and regional cooperation,” Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta. Romana said in a press briefing Wednesday morning.
“[It’s] an opportunity for the Philippines to seek business, economic activities, new outlets for markets for our exports, new sources of foreign investments but the key really is the idea of connectivity and this is what has been the factor why the President is attending,” he added.
The 74-year-old Duterte first set foot in China as president in a state visit in October 2016 and again in May 2017 for the first Belt and Road Forum. His third visit was in April last year for the Boao Forum, which Manila also hosted for the first time this year on Monday.
Duterte, however, did not attend the event.
On Thursday, the Philippine leader is set to hold bilateral talks with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping and Chinese Premier Li Kequiang.
The Department of Foreign Affairs earlier said at least 5 agreements are on the table with China covering areas of education, anti-corruption, official development assistance, and drug rehabilitation.
“They (Duterte and Xi) are expected of course to chart the course of further development of bilateral relations in various areas like defense, security, economics, and development as well as regional and international issues of mutual importance,” Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Meynardo Montealegre said.
This week’s meeting between Duterte and Xi follows the Chinese president's historic state visit to the Philippines in November last year, where they signed several agreements including a memorandum of understanding on cooperation on oil and gas development.
Duterte is also one of the lead speakers at the Leaders’ Roundtable on Saturday, where 39 other heads of state are expected to attend, Montealegre said.
Malacañang earlier said Duterte might raise in his meeting with Xi Manila’s concerns on the growing presence of Chinese ships in the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea.
In the days leading to Duterte’s trip to China, tensions between Filipinos and Chinese in the disputed waters have escalated with sightings of Beijing ships near Pag-asa Island, Kota Island, and Panata Island. Filipino fishermen have also reported mass harvesting of clams by the Chinese in the Scarborough Shoal.
“This is his opportunity to demonstrate that he really has a word on the issue,” Jay Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea told ABS-CBN News.
“The minimum the President should demand is for China to withdraw its destructive fishing fleet from these areas. That is the barest minimum. It doesn’t affect in any manner the claims of other sides,” he added.
Sta. Romana, meanwhile, said the Philippines would welcome any “reassurance that there won’t be any act of force against our people, against our soldiers” from China but noted that “we have to remain vigilant.”
“We combine diplomacy and deterrence and that’s why you have to build your capability in terms of deterrence,” he said.
“The real issue is how to avoid any miscalculation, how to avoid any conflict and how to deescalate and exercise restraint so that the issue will not become a crisis,” he added.
Duterte had sought closer ties with Asia’s largest economy even as the two countries have yet to resolve its bitter maritime dispute.
In his pivot to China, Duterte tried to distance the Philippines from the United States, its long-standing ally, a move partly fueled by Washington’s criticism of his drug war and human rights record.
Beijing, however, has refused to recognize Manila’s victory in a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal which invalidated China's sweeping nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea, and instead, ramped up its militarization efforts in the disputed waters, a move it also denies.