Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday visited Chinese warships docked in his home town and raised the prospect of future joint exercises, highlighting fast-warming relations despite competing claims in the South China Sea.
Duterte made his visit a day after issuing a chairman’s statement on behalf of the 10-nation ASEAN bloc that took a soft stance towards Chinese expansionism and island-building in the waterway.
The Philippine leader praised the guided missile destroyer Chang Chun as “very impressive”.
“It’s all carpeted inside. It’s like a hotel,” he enthused after being presented with a Chinese naval cap.
“This is part of confidence-building and goodwill and to show we are friends and that is why I welcome them here,” Duterte said of the three-vessel flotilla that arrived in Davao City on Mindanao island on Sunday.
Asked about possible joint exercises between the Philippines and China, Duterte said “Yes, I said I agree. There can be joint exercises.”
He suggested they be held in the southern Philippines, perhaps in the Sulu Sea where Muslim extremist pirates have been active in recent months.
Duterte, elected last year, has distanced himself from traditional longtime ally the United States. He has played down his country’s territorial dispute with China in favour of seeking greater economic aid and investment from it.
China has sparked regional concern by turning reefs and shoals in contested areas into artificial islands, installing military facilities and airstrips on some of them.
But in the statement issued after he hosted the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila, Duterte merely took note of “concerns expressed by some leaders over recent developments in the area”.
He ignored last year’s international ruling outlawing China’s sweeping claims to the key waterway.
ASEAN members the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei claim parts of the waterway, but China insists it has sovereign rights over nearly all of it.
Duterte has said the Philippines and other nations are helpless to stop the island-building, so there is no point challenging China in diplomatic and legal circles.
China is not a member of the 10-nation ASEAN, but its ambassador to Manila worked hard to influence the tenor and content of the chairman’s statement, diplomats earlier told AFP.
The visit of the Chinese vessels to Davao rather than Manila is widely seen as a personal gesture to the controversial Philippine leader.
It is the first Chinese navy port call to the country since 2010, the Philippine navy said, adding that “goodwill games” of basketball and tug-of-war were staged between the Chinese sailors and their Filipino counterparts in Davao.
Opposition legislator Gary Alejano, a former military officer, said that in the ASEAN summit, “they (China) won by convincing Duterte not to include any statement about the (international) ruling”.
“To make matters worse, Duterte even visited the Chinese warships. That only shows the president is trying everything to appease China,” the congressman told AFP.
“It is not about an independent foreign policy. It is about selling out and capitulating to China.”