Philippine President Duterte plans to meet with Chinese ‘friend’ Xi on April 8

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said he would meet next week virtually with his “friend,” Chinese leader Xi Jinping, as Filipino and U.S. forces conduct one of their largest joint exercises in years in the Southeast Asian nation bordering the disputed South China Sea.

The presidential office in Manila announced the upcoming meeting while troops, during the Balikatan (“shoulder-to-shoulder”) exercise, participated Thursday in a drill simulating an attack response on a remote beach on the northern tip of Luzon Island that fronts China and Taiwan.

“China is good,” Duterte said, according to transcripts released to the media on Friday. “April 8. Xi Jinping wants to talk to me. We are friends.”

Additional details of the planned meeting were being firmed up on Friday and Duterte’s office had not yet released topics to be discussed by the two leaders.

“[T]his meeting is still in the preparatory stage,” Communications Undersecretary Kristian Ablan said. “So what specific issues will be discussed by the world leaders will be known in the coming days.”

Although the Xi-Duterte meeting will be virtual, it is customary for a Philippine president to visit allies before leaving office. Duterte’s single six-year term ends on June 30.

The 2022 version of Balikatan is the biggest joint exercise involving Philippine and U.S. troops in seven years. About 9,000 troops are involved in the war games, which are schedule to end on April 8, the same day Duterte is to meet with Xi.

The exercise began shortly after the Philippine Coast Guard reported a March 2 “close distance maneuvering” incident involving one of its ships and the China Coast Guard near Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea. Philippine officials said the Chinese ship sailed within 21 meters (69 feet) of the Philippine ship and accused Beijing of violating 1972 international regulations on preventing collisions at sea.

Balikatan comes two months after the Biden administration in the United States introduced a new strategy to increase security engagements in the Indo-Pacific region amid growing concerns about China.

Duterte’s relationships

At the beginning of his term in 2016, Duterte drifted away from traditional ally Washington in favor of China and Russia. Instead of enforcing an international court ruling that invalidated China’s expansive claims to the nearly all of the South China Sea, the president pursued friendlier ties with Xi, leading to increased Chinese investments in the Philippines.

While admitting in 2021 that the court ruling was binding, Duterte continued to emphasize his friendship with the Chinese leader, noting that Manila was indebted to Beijing for providing COVID-19 vaccines in the early days of the pandemic.

In March 2021, Duterte said he planned to visit China, a country he traveled to six times, to personally thank Xi for the vaccines. Those visits are the most by any Philippine president while in office to a foreign country but Duterte has never visited Washington, according to officials.

Duterte last traveled to China in August 2019 on a five-day official visit when he raised the landmark arbitral ruling for the Philippines on the South China Sea.

China has rejected the ruling and insisted on its historical claims over virtually the entire sea region, which the court ruled as having no basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Aside from China and the Philippines, five other Asian governments – Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam – have territorial claims. While Indonesia does not regard itself as a party to the South China Sea dispute, Beijing claims historic rights to parts of the sea overlapping Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone.

Manila has grown critical of Beijing’s actions during the past year, including Chinese fishing boats swarming near the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal. In early March, the Philippines protested a Chinese navy reconnaissance ship’s “illegal incursion” in the Sulu Sea – a move that Beijing said did not break international law.

In a rare move in November 2021, Duterte expressed “grave concern” after a China Coast Guard ship fired water cannon on Filipino supply boats in the disputed waters.

“We abhor the recent event in the Ayungin Shoal and view with grave concern other similar developments,” Duterte said at the time.

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