China will “tolerate” Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte raising the issue of territorial disputes in the South China Sea during his trip to Beijing this week as long as he doesn’t push the issue too hard, according to Chinese analysts.
Doing so may jeopardise his goal of securing economic aid and business deals, observers said.
Duterte arrives in China on Tuesday, three months after relations between the two nations hit an all-time low following an international court ruling that declared there was no legal basis for China’s claims to much of the South China Sea. The case was taken to the tribunal in The Hague by the Philippines.
Duterte’s delegation includes up to 400 business leaders and he is due to meet President Xi Jinping on Thursday.
“Duterte’s main task in Beijing is to repair bilateral relations and secure cooperation, especially in economic areas, which are critical to him,” said Wu Shicun, the president of the National Institute for South China Sea Studies.
China also wants The Hague ruling to be forgotten as quickly as possible, according to Xue Li, a researcher at China Academy of Social Sciences.
As a result, the originally planned two-day trip has been elevated to a four-day state visit, the highest level in diplomacy to honour the Philippines leader. Duterte will also meet Premier Li Keqiang and the chairman of the National People’s Congress, Zhang Dejiang.
The two presidents will issue a joint statement stressing areas of cooperation and witness the signing of a number of memoranda of understanding and agreements in areas including agriculture, infrastructure construction, investment and trade, according to the Philippines foreign ministry.
The presidential joint statement will push forward the approach of resolving the South China Sea dispute through cooperation, according to Xu Liping, a fellow at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, as Duterte has repeated his willingness to negotiate with China.
China’s state-run news agency Xinhua has also reported that Duterte has praised Beijing’s “generosity” in helping developing countries and its assistance to his anti-drug campaign and said the purpose of his visit was to win solid support from China to develop his country and its economy.
His comments contrasted with the tough tone he has adopted towards the United States, according to Xinhua.
Duterte has proposed the joint development of the Philippines’ rich tourism, mining and agricultural resources, adding his country was in urgent need of infrastructure such as railways and ports, but lacks funding.
“The Philippines need railways. I hope China can provide us soft loans. Give us some time, we will pay back gradually,” he said.
However on Sunday Duterte also reiterated that he would discuss with China the ruling passed down in The Hague, which Beijing has ignored. The Philippines is one of five rival claimants disputing China’s “nine-dash line” claim to much of the South China Sea.
Wu said China expects and “fully understands” that Duterte will probably raise the arbitration ruling because of the pressure from Philippine society and the country’s political opposition. “Otherwise he could not answer to his fellow citizens,” said Wu.
Song Junying, an expert specialising in Asia-Pacific studies at the China Institute of International Studies, said a brief mention of the arbitration would affect the atmosphere a little during the talks in Beijing, but it was of small consequence as Duterte’s state visit marked a positive turn in relations.
“We could look at this with some tolerance,” said Song.
Wu also said it would be fine if Duterte raised the rulings “symbolically”, but “he’d better not insist on it, or demand to negotiate cooperation under this condition”.
“Duterte clearly understands that he will harvest nothing if he focuses on the controversial Hague ruling during his trip,” said Wu, who is close to the Chinese authorities.
Dai Fan, a Southeast Asia affairs expert at Jinan University in Guangzhou, said both sides had already worked out the agenda before Duterte left for Beijing.
“It is impossible he’s come all the way to Chinese territory to slap China in the face,” said Dai.