Chinese leader Xi Jinping started a two-day visit to the Philippines on Tuesday with a promise of economic aid, but protesters greeted him by criticizing Beijing over a territorial row and what others said was its strategy to trap Manila into debt.
As Xi arrived to a red-carpet welcome from government officials, about 200 protesters marched on Beijing’s embassy in Makati, Manila’s financial district, to demand that China pull out from islands it claims in the disputed South China Sea.
After the Chinese president arrived in Manila, he and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte held talks behind closed doors. Afterward Xi said he had an “in depth exchange of views” with Duterte on relations, and he considered the Philippine leader a good friend after having met six times over the past two years.
“Thanks to our joint efforts, we have made productive the results in cooperation in all areas bringing benefits to our two peoples and making contribution to peace and stability of the region,” Xi said.
Xi and Duterte also witnessed the signing of a raft of agreements, including a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas development in the South China Sea and more than two dozen others, from projects on water sewerage to development and rehabilitation of the destroyed southern city of Marawi.
Both leaders issued statements in the evening, but did not take any questions from the press. They underscored the friendship between the two nations, which they said had agreed to work closely “to deepen the relationship.”
“The president and I both agreed to elevate our relationship into one of comprehensive, strategic cooperation,” Xi said, stressing that this would send a “strong message” to the world that China and the Philippines were “partners in seeking common development.”
“China and the Philippines have a lot of common interests in the South China Sea,” Xi added. “We will continue to manage contentious issues and promote maritime cooperation through friendly consultation.”
But China’s intentions in the South China Sea are not exactly well defined, and protesters, including academics have questioned Beijing’s sincerity.
Tuesday’s demonstration in Makati by anti-China protestors snarled traffic as some of the protesters carried a huge banner that read: “Assert our sovereign rights; China out of West Philippine Sea,” the Philippine name for the South China Sea.
They also chanted anti-Chinese slogans as police stood silently in front of the building housing the Chinese Embassy.
“We are ashamed and outraged that President Rodrigo Duterte is selling out the Philippines to China,” said Neri Colmenares, one of the protest leaders. “We are here to tell Xi that not all Filipinos are subservient to him like Duterte. Not all of us concede China’s possession of our waters, nor seek joint ownership and use of our exclusive economic zone.”
He apparently was referring to the agreement on a proposed sea exploration deal with Beijing, under which China would give the Philippines a 60 percent-40 percent share on resources recovered from the Reed Bank.
The Reed Bank lies within Manila’s exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea, and is believed to sit atop vast untapped natural resources. Analysts have said that joint exploration in the area would go against the Philippine constitution.
Details of the agreement were not released to the media.
Both parties “have agreed to conduct joint oil and gas exploration in relevant sea areas in the South China Sea,” according to a proposed joint statement seen by BenarNews.
The document said that a working group of the China National Offshore Oil Corp. and a still unspecified Philippine partner would lead the exploration, with the outcome “shared by the two parties.”
“The joint oil and gas exploration shall not affect the respective position on sovereignty and maritime rights and interests of the two parties,” the document read.
Meanwhile, a congressman from the opposition, Rep. Gary Alejano, said that while the Chinese president was welcome in the Philippines, the country “must keep in mind the real agenda of his visit which is to expand China’s influence in our government and policies.”
Alejano called on Duterte to protest China’s regional maritime expansion, noting that a Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague had ruled in favor of Manila and thrown out Beijing’s expansive historical claims to almost all of the South China Sea.
He warned against Duterte falling into a trap similar that has ensnared countries such as Sri Lanka, which defaulted on loans and turned over territory to the Chinese government.
“We have to be wary of China’s debt-trap diplomacy,” Alejano said, as he called on Filipinos to oppose what he said were “Chinese incursions and abuses and the promotion of pro-China policies by the Duterte administration.”
Closer ties under Duterte
Xi arrived in Manila fresh from attending the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings in Singapore and Papua New Guinea, respectively.
During the summits, China’s growing economic and military prowess in the region took center stage, with discussions about the South China Sea eliciting a push back from the United States.
“Let me be clear: China’s militarization and territorial expansion in the South China Sea is illegal and dangerous. It threatens the sovereignty of many nations and endangers the prosperity of the world,” U.S. Vice President Pence said at the East Asia summit of 18 nations in Singapore.
“For our part, the United States will continue to fly and sail wherever international law allows and our national interests demand. Harassment will not deter us; it only strengthens our resolve,” he said.
Duterte has been China’s leading supporter in the region, a complete turnaround from the position taken by his predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, who took Beijing to court on the South China Sea issue and won. Malaysia and Vietnam have also taken a stand against China, with Kuala Lumpur freezing loans from Beijing and warning of a debt trap.
On Tuesday, Philippine pollster Social Weather Stations (SWS) released a survey which found that 84 percent of adult Filipinos rejected the government’s policy of “doing nothing about China’s intrusion” into its waters.
The poll, taken in the middle of September, presented respondents with three activities and the opportunity to decide whether it was “right”’ or “not right” for the government to do this.
“To this, 84 percent said it is not right for the government to leave China alone with its infrastructure and military presence in the claimed territories,” SWS said, adding that this was up by three points from 81 percent in June 2018.
About 86 percent also said it was “right” to boost the armed forces’ capabilities with emphasis on the navy. This was six points higher than the 80 percent approval in June.
More tellingly, 87 percent said it was important for Manila to regain control of the islands already occupied by China.
Duterte spokesman Salvador Panelo said the results of the survey were expected, noting that the Philippines was a longtime U.S. ally, and asking Filipinos to trust the Chinese government would take time.
“It will be a long process,” Panelo said as he blasted the survey as misleading.
“It suggests that this government is not doing anything, plus the criticism has been going in media criticizing the president for not doing anything,” he said, adding that the pollster apparently did not seem to know “the strategy of the president.”
“The president is very careful, but diplomatic at the same time. Foremost in his mind is the safety of the Filipinos, of this nation,” he said.
Jason Gutierrez in Manila and Jeoffrey Maitem in Cotabato City, Philippines, contributed to this report.