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Why Duterte’s leaving behind his jet ski on his trip to China

The optimism of the couplet carved into the Filipino-Chinese Friendship Arch at the entrance of Manila’s Chinatown seems apt to describe the warming ties between the two countries. The shining gold Chinese characters predict the countries’ bond will “last 1,000 autumns” and the “harmony shall be forever”.

That sentiment may yet reflect the future, but holds less well for the recent past.

When the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, meets his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping ( 習近平 ) this week in Beijing, he will be putting aside years of hostility to cosy up to the world’s second largest economy – a move made all the more significant by the frosting of relations between his country and the world’s largest economy, the United States.

Before Duterte was sworn in as president in June, Sino-Philippines relations had hit rock bottom. The archipelago nation, then led by Benigno Aquino, had made the gutsy and provocative decision to take China to the international court over their territorial dispute in the South China Sea. The court dismissed China’s claims to the contested waters, making it clear that China had violated Philippine sovereignty by building artificial islands there.

Indeed, when Duterte was running for president, the tough talker claimed he would personally drive a jet ski to the disputed Spratly Islands and plant the Philippine flag.

But it’s a marked change in tone, not a jet ski, that Duterte – born and raised in the Philippines but with an ethnic Chinese grandfather from Xiamen ( 廈門 ) – has driven. His words on China have become more measured.

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“Leaning [towards] China is a very important thing because China is very near to the Philippines. We are neighbours,” said James Dy, emeritus chairman of the Filipino-Chinese General Chamber of Commerce.

“There are a lot of Filipinos who have Chinese blood… [China] is a big nation, it has a big economy and a big population. If China gives us, say, 5 million tourists every year, the Philippines will be very happy. It’s good business for us.”

Dy, one of the most well-known businessmen in the Philippines, whose empire spans from hotels to real estate and travel agencies, said the Chinese community was keeping its fingers crossed that, as relations between the two countries improved, more investment would pump into the country, which is struggling to create enough jobs.

He said China would help the Philippines build infrastructure and railways, hopefully easing Manila’s notorious traffic, caused by overpopulation and lack of public transport.

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Dy also said he hoped the governments could agree to waive travel visas for each other’s citizens, boosting tourism and encouraging business.

“I expect [Duterte] will bring a lot of things home. I don’t think the president would just visit without more or less a previous understanding … if everything [was likely to be] rejected by the [Chinese] government, why should he go there?”

Duterte has done plenty to suggest Chinese leaders will be pleased to see him.

Last week, he advised Filipino businessmen at a forum to learn from their Chinese counterparts.

“Study the Chinese style. It’s an innate thing in them, the art of doing business,” he said.

“You know my grandfather, when he arrived in Agusan, Butuan, he had nothing but his capital. He’s really good. He went [from selling dried] copra then to buying land. He kept his money growing.”

But recent relations are not all sunshine and light. Some observers question whether the loss of US influence will affect Manila’s stance on human rights, which has already been condemned for the wave of extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers that Duterte has encouraged. They point out that dealing with external critics on human rights is a common concern for Beijing and Manila.

Jacqueline Ann De Guia, spokeswoman of the Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines, played down such fears.

“We would be generalising too much if we were to accord the strengthening of ties with China with potentially the rise in human rights violation,” she said. “I hope it won’t equate to a direct correlation with human rights violations.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese community in the Philippines – 2.5 million of its 102 million people – is thriving.

According to Forbes, of the 10 richest people in the Philippines, seven are Filipino-Chinese. They control assets such as shopping malls, banks and fast food chains.

Smaller Chinese businesses are also doing well – particularly in Chinatown, in the Binondo district of Manila, where the streets teem with Chinese eateries, groceries and shops selling cheap Chinese clothes, sunglasses and toys.

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Even before Duterte became president, when diplomatic ties between the countries were at a low, the Chinese were a welcome presence.

“We get along very well. The Filipinos are always very friendly,” said a woman from Xiamen who runs a restaurant in Chinatown. “Businesses are okay. You just need to work hard and work long hours. I wake up every day at 6am to buy the fresh vegetables from the market.”

Many Filipinos in Manila are happy to acknowledge the importance of investments by the Chinese community.

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“Look at all these shopping malls, they are all owned by the Chinese,” taxi driver Coronel Jose Dindo said, gesturing at the shiny buildings as he drove past. “If the Chinese people leave the country, our economy will die.”

Whatever Duterte brings back from Beijing this week may not “last 1,000 autumns”, but could affect his country’s prosperity and security for years to come.