Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, met Tuesday in Manila at the beginning of a two-day state visit by the Chinese leader, where the two countries announced 29 agreements.
The deals include a memorandum of understanding to jointly explore for energy resources, alongside agreements on basic education, agricultural cooperatives and infrastructure projects, Philippines government spokesman JV Arcena told CNN.
The Philippines in the past has taken a strong line on China’s behavior in the disputed sea, even taking China to an international tribunal. But under Duterte, the government has increasingly looked to build an economically beneficial relationship with Beijing.
Protesting muscular regional policies
Thousands of Filipinos took to the streets as Xi touched down in Manila, protesting in front of the Chinese embassy in the business district of Makati.
US Vice President Mike Pence this month knocked China for loans to developing countries in the Pacific and beyond.
“The terms of those loans are often opaque at best,” Pence said at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, or APEC, conference. “Projects they support are often unsustainable and of poor quality. Too often, they come with strings attached and lead to staggering debt. … The United States deals openly, fairly. We do not offer a constricting belt or a one-way road.”
Philippines’ Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno had earlier insisted that the country wouldn’t fall into a debt trap through Beijing-assisted loans.
The “Department of Finance and other agencies … have reviewed the terms that would be the best for us. (We would not agree) if those are unreasonable terms and terms that are worse than other sources,” he said.
Meantime online, many Filipinos changed their profile pictures to images of the cartoon bear Winnie the Pooh, a symbol censored on Chinese social media for its supposed likeness to the Chinese leader.
US flexes muscle in the South China Sea
The United States has steadily ratcheted up its military presence this year in the South China Sea, leading to heightened tensions with Beijing.
The Chinese government claims an enormous swathe of territory in the highly contested region, overlapping the stated positions of the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia, among others.
To bolster its position, Beijing since 2015 has been constructing and militarizing artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea.
While the US routinely flies bombers in the vicinity of the South China Sea as part of its long standing “Continuous Bomber Presence” missions, Beijing is particularly sensitive about the presence of US military forces near areas where the Chinese government has built islands and established military facilities on disputed maritime features.
In September, a Chinese warship came within 45 yards of the destroyer USS Decatur, forcing the US vessel to maneuver to avoid a collision, and the US Navy labeled China’s actions “unsafe and unprofessional.”
That incident took place while the Decatur was conducting a “Freedom of Navigation Operation,” which involved sailing within 12 nautical miles of Gaven and Johnson reefs in the Spratly Islands.
The US has accused China of deploying anti-ship missiles, electronic jammers, and surface-to-air missiles to contested islands in the South China Sea.
Pence and Xi spar at major meeting
Xi’s visit to the Philippines caps off an unexpectedly turbulent trip for the Chinese leader, after he joined in a war of words with Pence at the annual APEC summit in Papua New Guinea.
Divisions rapidly developed over language in the joint communique condemning “unfair trade practices,” which Chinese officials felt was directed at Beijing.
Speaking Saturday at the summit, Xi said global differences around trade needed to be solved “through consultation,” encouraging international cooperation.
“History has shown that confrontation, whether in the form of a cold war, a hot war or a trade war, will produce no winners,” Xi said to applause.
But Pence made it clear the Trump administration expects China to change before it would relax strict tariffs, imposed over the course of the year on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods.
“China has taken advantage of the United States for many, many years, and those days are over,” Pence said shortly after Xi spoke.
It was a disappointing end to the summit for Xi, who had expected to dominate due to Trump’s absence and the large loans Beijing has dispensed across the Asia-Pacific region.