Asia Minute: A Complicated Presidential Relationship: Duterte and Xi

Aug 30, 2019

One of the more complicated relationships in the Asia Pacific took another turn this week. The president of the Philippines led a large delegation to Beijing, where he met with China’s president — drawing attention from much of the region.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has a complex relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two have met eight times over the past three years since Duterte took office.

One result of closer ties has been a boost in trade and investment — China is now the largest export market for the Philippines, as well as its largest trading partner.

But the two countries have also been locked in a long-running dispute over territorial claims in the South China Sea – a portion of which the Manila government calls the “West Philippine Sea.”

In 2016, a UN tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines, but China has ignored the finding. Chinese fishing boats and military vessels have sailed through the disputed waters with impunity.

Domestic pressure has grown in the Philippines for Duterte to make some sort of response. But so far he has played up aspects of cooperation with Beijing. The two countries are still discussing a potential deal to jointly explore for oil and gas, and will continue to talk about maritime claims.

After the two leaders met Thursday, Duterte spoke in vague terms — saying, “Today we can have fresh impetus indeed for a stronger momentum to work together.”

Xi also used broad and inconclusive language — saying he wants to work to develop the bi-lateral relationship despite quote, “complicated changes in the region and the world.”