Visiting Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte had praise for China on Wednesday, setting aside a maritime dispute as the combative leader reconfigures his country’s diplomatic alliances.
The Asian giant was “good,” he said.
“It has never invaded a piece of my country all these generations,” Duterte added in an apparent comparison to the Philippines’ former colonial ruler the United States.
“During the Cold War, China was portrayed as the bad guy,” he added. “And all of these years, what we have read in our books in school were all propaganda produced by the West.”
Duterte is in China for a four-day trip that is expected to confirm his tilt away from Washington and toward Beijing’s sphere of influence.
Foreign policy under Duterte has dramatically shifted from that pursued under predecessor Benigno Aquino, who took Beijing to an international tribunal over its extensive territorial claims in the South China Sea and won a resounding victory.
The move infuriated Beijing. But Duterte, who took office in June shortly before the tribunal ruling, has made a point of not flaunting the outcome, even though China seized Scarborough Shoal — a fishiang ground within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone — in 2012.
The judgment, Duterte said, was “a piece of paper with four corners.”
“The arbitral award gives us the right. China has the historical right. And they’re insisting. In this situation, do we argue, or do we just talk? I would say, let us put it (off) to some other day.”
On the eve of his arrival in Beijing, the firebrand former lawyer was quoted by China’s official Xinhua news agency state media saying: “Only China can help us.”
As Duterte has cosied up to Beijing, he has repeatedly denounced the United States and President Barack Obama for criticizing his deadly war on crime.
He has also suspended joint US-Philippine patrols in the South China Sea, and has threatened an end to joint military exercises.
The South China Sea is of intense interest to Washington and it has repeatedly spoken out on the various territorial disputes between China and its neighbors over the strategically vital waters.
Tensions have risen between the US and China over Washington’s so-called “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific, a move that Beijing says is intended to contain it.
Duterte will meet top leaders including President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang during his stay.
Hours before he spoke, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told a regular briefing that Beijing was pleased to move toward resolving the territorial dispute “through consultation and dialogue.”
“This is how two friendly neighbors should treat each other,” she added.
“Anyone who truly wishes for peace, stability, development and prosperity in the Asia Pacific” should welcome Duterte’s visit.
In an editorial Wednesday, China’s nationalist Global Times newspaper said Washington had treated Manila “as a pawn,” adding Duterte was now “redesigning Philippine foreign policy based on Philippine interests.”
Duterte has said his China trip will focus on promoting economic ties.
The Philippines is hoping, among other things, that Beijing will repeal a ban on imports of its bananas — an economic sanction intended to punish Manila for its South China Sea stance.
Hua said Wednesday announcements on infrastructure cooperation and economic development projects could be expected during the Philippine leader’s visit.