Duterte’s ‘strange and unprecedented’ China visit: Media and public in the dark

DAYS AFTER the controversial July 17 visit of former president Rodrigo Duterte to China, many details remain unclear. Made known to the public through Chinese media coverage, even the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) was caught off-guard, telling reporters it did “not have official information on the visit of the former President.” That Duterte stayed in China an entire week was revealed only at an ambush interview after he returned indicated how little information was shared by the former president with the administration.

Piecemeal reports scattered the relevant information, mostly revealed by sources close to Duterte, who did so to downplay the unusual circumstances of the visit. However, this only sharpened the sense that the former leader had done which he was not willing to discuss. It was clear however that foreign policy ministers were present at Duterte’s meetings; while no one from the DFA attended. But none of the sources acknowledged the need for disclosure about the purpose of the visit as anything of this nature would be a matter of public interest about which the people should be informed. 

‘Friendly Cooperation’

On July 17, Duterte met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing. Chinese state media reported that state counselor Wang Yi and three other foreign affairs ministers received the former head of state alongside Xi. Salvador Medialdea, former executive secretary, accompanied Duterte.

Duterte and Xi’s July 17, 2023 meeting in Beijing | Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs

A video clip and photos released by Chinese state media showed Duterte and Xi at the meeting, which appeared to have been held with all the formalities required for a visiting foreign president. At the meeting, Xi reportedly urged Duterte to continue promoting “friendly cooperation” between the Philippines and China as he did during his presidential term. 

CNN Philippines reported on July 17 that it was unknown in what capacity Duterte was representing the Philippines.   

Personal Visit?

After news of the meeting broke, Philippine media sought reactions from sources that it hoped could clarify the situation.

Medialdea claimed it was simply “a meeting of two old friends.” Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, Duterte’s former aide, defended the “private visit” as a “courtesy call” unrelated to politics. Go explained that Duterte was there to attend the inauguration of a school building memorializing Duterte’s late mother, upon the invitation of the Friends of the Philippines Foundation. 

Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, former police chief under Duterte, said he was “not aware” of what was discussed at the meeting. He downplayed the meeting’s timing having coincided with the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to continue with its investigation of the killings in the Duterte administration’s campaign against illegal drugs.

When asked by reporters, Duterte’s daughter, Vice President Sara Duterte. refused to comment. 

Positive Spin

At an event on July 18, Marcos said he was aware that the “personal trip” would take place. When asked whether Duterte had sought permission from him, Marcos said Duterte did not and did not need to, as Xi and his predecessor “are friends.” Marcos hoped that the two discussed China’s actions in the West Philippine Sea and “welcomed any new lines of communication.” To reassure reporters, Marcos added that he was “sure” Duterte would brief him eventually on the details of the visit.

Senator Imee Marcos, the president’s sister, likewise pinned her hopes on Duterte’s visit working out in favor of the Philippines’ national interest.

Gilbert Teodoro, Marcos’s defense secretary, called the visit “not unexpected” and not a “cause for concern” but added the former president is expected to uphold the Philippines’ “best interests.”  

Clarita Carlos, Marcos’ former national security adviser, praised Duterte for the meeting. Carlos called it a “good effort” to “prevent war.” 

Critical Questions

France Castro, a member of the opposition at the House of Representatives, criticized the visit. For Castro, it demonstrated that Duterte remained “at Beijing’s beck and call.” 

Former Senate president Franklin Drilon countered the narrative put forward by Duterte’s allies by stressing that the trip was “not a simple private visit,” as Duterte is no ordinary private citizen. He urged Duterte to divulge the details of the meeting “out of courtesy and respect” for the current president and for the benefit of the public.

Dindo Manhit, president of international studies think tank Stratbase ADR Institute, said Duterte’s meeting with Xi “undermined” Marcos.   

Retired Supreme Court associate justice Antonio Carpio speculated that Duterte’s visit had to do with the ICC’s decision. Carpio said that with a warrant of arrest “looming,” the former president was looking to China for safe haven. He added, however, that China could have other motives for inviting Duterte. 

Speaking to ANC, Renato de Castro, professor of international studies at De La Salle University in Manila, provided two possible interpretations for the meeting, which he described as “strange” and “unprecedented.” First, it was a back-door negotiation on the territorial dispute over the West Philippine Sea. Second, it was a signal of China’s displeasure with Marcos’s supposed pivot to friendlier foreign relations with the United States. 

Academics at the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (Cenpeg) stressed that Duterte’s role within the Marcos administration’s foreign relations should remain “informal” and be limited to “back-channeling talks.” Should Duterte play a more significant role, it would “undermine” the president. Cenpeg thinks Duterte likely met with Xi at former president Gloria Arroyo’s request. They added that the visit was “meant to appease” Beijing after Marcos’ shift to stronger ties with the United States.    

Other Relevant Context 

Aside from the ICC decision, the timing of the visit should be scrutinized for two other reasons related to international law and foreign policy. First, it occurred just after the seventh anniversary of the July 2016 Hague arbitral ruling that affirmed China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea, including Philippine waters, had no basis in international law. 

Second, the Senate announced the looming passage of a “strongly worded” resolution condemning China’s repeated incursions into the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. The Senate would then request that the Philippine government present the resolution to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). Senator Alan Peter Cayetano, Duterte’s former foreign affairs secretary, “stalled” the passage of the resolution on July 26. Asked for comment on the resolution on July 28, Marcos reportedly expressed apprehension. On August 1, the Senate voted unanimously to adopt a revised resolution, which condemns China’s actions but states that engaging the UNGA is only an “option.” 

Media had earlier reported that Duterte would attend the State of the Nation Address scheduled exactly a week after the Beijing meeting. But hours before the event, Go told the media that Duterte would skip the occasion due to exhaustion from the weeklong visit to China. Go revealed that Duterte had just returned to the Philippines on Saturday, July 22. Go also said Duterte has a “plan to brief Marcos” regarding the meeting. But so far, no further details have been made public, and the news media have not followed up to find information on their own.

The public deserves to know what was discussed and the outcomes of the meeting. Despite the repeated argument that it was a personal matter, the official policy implications cannot be ignored given Duterte’s foreign policy track record and the continuing geopolitical tension involving China and the United States. 

The Duterte-Xi meeting also begs the political question: What’s the real deal between Marcos and Duterte?