Duterte’s ‘I love Xi Jinping’ on Day of Valor and other praises

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President Rodrigo Duterte and People's Republic of China President Xi Jinping walk side by side at the start of the state dinner at the Boao State Guesthouse on April 10, 2018. (PPD/Ace Morandante)

After years of China’s island reclamation within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, President Rodrigo Duterte has nothing but admiration for Chinese President Xi Jinping.

“I need China. More than anybody else at this point, I need China. I simply love Xi Jinping. He understood, he understands my problem and is willing to help.”

The statement came during a press conference on the Philippines’ Day of Valor on April 9, just ahead of Duterte’s trip to China for a bilateral meeting. The Day of Valor commemorates the fall of the Filipino-American forces in Bataan into Japanese hands during World War II.

Duterte’s expression of affection for Xi and his statement that he “needed” China was met with violent reactions by some Filipinos.

As usual, Duterte said he would not bring up the matter of disputed territory between the countries to avoid creating any further tension. This is despite the Philippines’ legal victory over China before a United Nations-based arbitral tribunal.

In 2016, the tribunal threw out China’s supposedly historic nine-dash claim over waters within the Philippines’ jurisdiction. China has of course refused to recognize this decision.

Moments when Duterte showed he values ties with Xi, Putin

As early as 2016, just months into the start of his administration, Duterte had already been vocal about leaning toward a friendship with China—a stark contrast to the policy of his predecessor Noynoy Aquino.

“Though we come to your country close to winter, it is the springtime of our relationship,” Duterte reportedly said in his first meeting with Beijing.

It was around the same time as his meeting with Xi that Duterte would announce resumption of bilateral talks with China and reduced cooperation with the United States.

In consonance with his decision to pivot from traditional ties with the US that year, Duterte also publicly announced his gravitation toward the US’s traditional rivals, China and Russia.

“You may have something there that we need.”

“You may have something there that we need. I will open trade alliances with Russia and China,” said Duterte in reports of his plan to bolster trade with the two countries.

His officials argued, however, that nothing has changed with the Philippines’ relations with its longstanding defense ally, the United States.

It comes to no surprise that in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit last year in Vietnam, Duterte claimed that it was his talks with Xi and Russia’s Vladimir Putin which were the most productive.

He thanked Xi for China’s aid during the Marawi crisis and thanked Putin for expressing support for the Philippines’ campaign against illegal drugs.

Apart from his friendship with Xi, Duterte earlier in his administration spoke openly of his admiration for the Russian head of state.

President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, exchange tokens on the sidelines of the dinner hosted by Xi at the Boao State Guesthouse on April 10, 2018. (PPD/Ace Morandante)

Last year saw another set of trade and business agreements between the two leaders that resulted in $600 million pledge from China, Duterte was reported to have called Xi’s administration “very liberal” and “generous.” 

In another bilateral meeting the same year, Duterte was upbeat about the relationship between the two countries.

Beijing later issued a statement saying that a code of conduct to manage the South China Sea disputes is in the works.

Duterte not only dismissed reports about China’s military buildup in the dispute area, but spoke of a “bright future” to come should a partnership between the two countries blossom.

In March 2018, Duterte dismissed his campaign promise to ride a jet-ski to the disputed area as “kalokohan” (a joke). Xi later sent birthday greetings to Duterte.

Duterte had joked in February 2018 about the Philippines becoming a province of China.

Residual tension

Despite the regular exchange of praise and pleasantries between the two leaders, China has maintained its position on the territorial dispute.

Amid talks of economic partnership and funding, Duterte in May 2017 spoke of Xi threatening to go to war should the Philippine continue to impose the UN Tribunal ruling.

“If it is only me, then I would not do that because it would result in a massacre,” said Duterte while explaining his decision to stand down following Beijing’s stern warning.

Analysts have dismissed Duterte’s black-and-white take on the dispute as simplistic and defeatist.

Xi’s international fan club

As if to bolster the transfer of “most powerful man in the world status” from the US presidency to China’s leader, US President Donald Trump, like Duterte, has also repeatedly expressed praise for his counterpart.

According to an editorial by the New York Times, Trump spoke positively about Xi following the Communist Party of China’s decision to remove presidential term limits from its constitution.

“He’s now president for life. President for life. No, he’s great,” Trump said in jest at a public appearance.

Xi was also congratulated by his ally Putin, another world leader who has managed to stay in power for longer than foreseen.