Duterte’s deference delights China but is questioned at home

Philippine President lavish praise for his hosts draws criticism from fellow citizens

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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s effusive message of friendship on his visit to Beijing this week has handed China a public relations bonanza just three months after Beijing suffered a humiliating defeat at an international tribunal.

The state-owned Chinese media that sought to portray Duterte’s predecessor and the arbitration panel as American puppets this summer have now rolled out what Chinese media scholars describe as a rare welcome for the Philippine president, who this week downplayed his country’s dispute with Beijing over South China Sea territory.

But the overtures have drawn criticism of Duterte at home in the Philippines, where the public is wary of taking a deferential attitude to a country regarded as a bully.

As his visit unfolded this week, Chinese state media aired a series of interviews in which Duterte - who has repeatedly voiced strident criticism of the United States - lavished his Chinese hosts with conciliatory words and pleaded earnestly for economic aid.

Zhan Jiang, a journalism professor at the Beijing Foreign Studies University, said he has rarely seen a state visit accompanied by so many interviews from state media.

“The visit has strategic significance and China wants to express its welcome, but Duterte also has a message to convey and he’s willing to give that same message to different Chinese outlets over and over,” Zhan said. “In the years I’ve followed the Chinese media I don’t think I’ve ever seen that.”

In a 12-minute China Central Television interview broadcast Wednesday, Duterte cast the two countries as bound as brothers by the South China Sea and mentioned his own Chinese ancestry - his grandfather was an immigrant from Xiamen province - which, he said, explains his personal sincerity. Developing his country’s economy was more important than exacerbating tensions with China over the South China Sea, as other US-backed Southeast Asian neighbors would have him do, he said.

“They say that all the nations would weigh in by my side, (but) I said it is close to a third world war,” he told CCTV. “What would be my point in insisting on the ownership of that body of water when the world is exploding?”

Someday, he added, the South China Sea will just be known as the China Sea. “One hundred years from now, it’s really meaningless,” he said. “The oceans cannot feed us all. Your fish is my fish.”

Duterte outlined his wish list of help from Beijing, led first by his hope that China would include the Philippines in the Asian giant’s massive Silk Road economic project. Shui responded: “We never forget you.”

Other Chinese outlets this week have followed suit in their tone of coverage, beginning with the moment Duterte stepped off his plane and into a warm embrace with Foreign Minister Wang Yi - who according to Chinese reports has not met a foreign leader on the tarmac since 2014.

But his posture in China has been met with skepticism back home. Although his supporters have cheered his diplomatic pivot away from the United States on social media, the country’s major media outlets have questioned his remarks in China, said Richard Heydarian, a professor of political science at De La Salle University in Manila.

“The mainstream media is saying it doesn’t sound right to be so deferential to the very country that has occupied Philippine territory, and that has provided negligible aid during Typhoon Haiyan,” said Heydarian. “Now he’s popular enough to shape public sentiment and ameliorate opponents, but that’s not guaranteed a year from now. He’s lucky this is his honeymoon period.”

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