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Here’s Why Rodrigo Duterte Could Be Making a High-Profile Visit to China

6 minute read

Fiery bluster or a genuine shift in allegiance? That’s the question U.S. officials will be trying to answer about Rodrigo Duterte’s diplomatic maneuvers when the Philippine President lands in Beijing on Tuesday, having vowed to sever his nation’s historic alliance with Washington and instead move closer to rival superpower China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping will, in turn, be trying to assess whether the erratic Duterte — whose savage extrajudicial war on drugs has so far claimed at least 3,600 lives, and who openly brags about womanizing — can be relied upon. Nevertheless, both these very different leaders have expressed hope of coming to an agreement over the South China Sea, where their nations have been at loggerheads over disputed territory.

Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, was among the most tenacious in standing up to China in this regard, even filing a complaint against Beijing at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague. (The court ruled emphatically in Manila’s favor.) Duterte, by contrast, has vowed to cooperate with China, advocating joint exploration of natural resources under the reefs. In recent weeks, he’s also threatened to expel U.S. Special Forces from Mindanao, to suspend all joint U.S. military exercises and patrols, and even to abrogate the U.S. Advanced Defense Cooperation Agreement signed by Aquino.

“Only China can help us,” Duterte told Chinese state news wire Xinhua prior to his arrival in Beijing.

All this is extremely worrying for Washington. The South China Sea is a vital trade corridor through which $5.3 trillion of cargo passes annually (around a fifth of which is American). The U.S. Navy has been ramping up freedom of navigation exercises in response to China’s militarizing of islets in the waterway, though would be severely hamstrung without the cooperation of vested parties like the Philippines, which is a U.S. defense treaty ally.

“The U.S. has been hoping that Duterte’s rash talk will not be translated into action,” says Jonah Blank, a Southeast Asia expert at the Rand Corp.

There is no doubting that Duterte has a distinct antipathy toward the U.S., emboldened by recent criticism of his “war on drugs,” a wave of violence that has gripped the Philippine streets since he came to office in June. Duterte is also supposedly a socialist who has repeatedly chaffed against the American presence in his homeland and who banned American drones from Davao Airport during his time as mayor.

“This guy genuinely believes that the U.S. is an empire that is interfering in the affairs of third-world countries like the Philippines,” says Richard Javad Heydarian, assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University.

However, there are plenty of reasons why a wholesale shift in alliances is unlikely. The first is public opinion. Last year’s Pew survey found 92% of Filipinos had a favorable view of the U.S. — the world’s highest rating, even higher than that of Americans themselves. By contrast, 58% of Filipinos view China unfavorably. “And the Philippine security establishment is even more pro-American,” says Heydarian.

That’s because some three-quarters of Philippine military equipment comes from the U.S. While Duterte has repeatedly railed against Washington, even calling U.S. President Barack Obama “a son of a whore” and telling him to “go to hell” for criticizing the war on drugs, key Cabinet members have been quick to pledge their continuing support.

“Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie, just like that?” asked former President Fidel Ramos, a key Duterte adviser and his recently appointed special envoy to China, in an Oct. 8 editorial in the Manila Bulletin.

Moreover, there is very little possible common ground between Manila and Beijing. China will happily offer financial and infrastructure assistance to Manila in exchange for dialing back opposition to its island building — and is already building a drug-treatment facility — but that will not be enough to assuage the Sinophobic Filipino public. Even a minor agreement like a nonaggression or joint fisheries pact in disputed waters is problematic, though, since the Philippine constitution clearly states that no dual development can be permitted in the nation’s Exclusive Economic Zones unless the other party agrees to Philippine sovereignty. The level of Chinese nationalist sentiment inculcated by the Xi administration — Chinese tourists regularly travel to disputed islands specifically to plant national flags — would make this impossible. That would leave Duterte needing a risky constitutional amendment.

“If Duterte is seen as effectively giving up Philippine sovereignty, he’s going to be in trouble,” says Heydarian. “That’s grounds for impeachment.”

So what could Duterte be after? One increasingly popular theory is that he is simply leveraging Philippine support in order to gain greater concessions from Washington. At present, the Philippines receives around $170 million per year from the U.S., though that figure is dwarfed by the sums Washington funnels to nations like Egypt and Pakistan, which each receive in the region of $1.5 billion.

“It’s possible that Duterte’s threats are a calculated maneuver to extract more concessions from the U.S.,” says Heydarian.

That would be a problem for Xi. Next year is the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, during which more than half of the Politburo Standing Committee, the nation’s apex governing body, is expected to be replaced. However, at that sensitive time Xi may not be able to point to many (if any) foreign policy successes. Beijing’s relationship with North Korea is at a historic low, with Pyongyang’s belligerence directly leading to the deployment of U.S. THAAD missile batteries on China’s doorstep in South Korea. On top of that came July’s unfavorable Hague decision over the South China Sea.

“Pressure is mounting,” says Zhu Feng, dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Nanjing University. “It’s time for Xi and his government to consider cooling down [some of these conflicts].”

Xi must convince Duterte that China really can offer benefits worth risking domestic support, while hoping that Duterte’s distaste for human rights and self-professed “dirty mouth” further alienate him from Washington. It might be a hard sell.

“China does not have an encouraging track record as an alternate patron,” says Blank. “For which nations has China proven a reliable long-term partner? Perhaps North Korea and Pakistan. That’s about it.”

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Write to Charlie Campbell / Beijing at charlie.campbell@time.com