Japan's Kyodo News Service reported that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte will visit China from October 19 to 20 before heading for Japan on October 25. The report said the new president had planned to make Japan his first trip outside of Southeast Asia, but China lobbied Manila, resulting in a change of plan.
The sequence of visit by a new national leader usually tells unspoken information. If the Kyodo report is true, speculation that Duterte is trying to improve ties with China will find support.
China has expressed welcome to an early visit by Duterte. Once he comes to China before going to Japan, a new, positive interaction between China and the Philippines, starkly different from the Aquino III era, may be unveiled.
Admittedly, a soft landing of the South China Sea issue can be difficult. How much change can be expected through a visit by a president is still an unanswered question.
More than two months into his presidency, Duterte shows stark differences from his predecessor in diplomacy and style. Summarizing his days so far as president, there are some things we can learn from his previous talks and actions.
First of all, Duterte has displayed an obvious tendency for independent foreign policy. He seems to prefer more balanced diplomatic relations with other countries rather than being too reliant on the US, a shift of diplomatic strategy.
Second, he is less enthusiastic about the South China Sea arbitration ruling. It may be because he doesn't believe the arbitration will bring concrete benefits to his country. He may also have realized that the Philippine's pursuit of arbitration best serves American and Japanese interests but will only exhaust the Philippines. However, ignoring the arbitration will irk the US. As a result, he has maintained a generally lower voice and shown ambiguity on this issue.
Third, Duterte is paying attention to domestic challenges like the war on drugs. He cannot be gentle if he aims to succeed in the fight against drug dealing, so his conflict over human rights with the US has become inevitable.
Fourth, once China-Philippine relations relax, China's problems with Vietnam will be under control, which will undermine the American "pivot to Asia." The TPP, as Obama's "biggest diplomatic achievement," has also not been going smoothly. But the situation in the South China Sea is still unclear. The Philippines can't sway the US and is under its influence.
Fifth, the worst time is over for China-Philippine relations, and now is a chance for China to adjust relations with related countries. The difficulty lies in the Philippines and Vietnam being overly demanding. China can't compromise too much. How to uphold principles but avoid pushing Duterte back to Washington will be a challenge for China.