Diplomatic intramurals marked the last two weeks, as President Rodrigo Duterte spent last week at two very important conferences — ASEAN in Singapore and APEC in Papua New Guinea — marking each leg a tremendous success amid the hectic schedule and brief power naps. President Duterte followed the usual routine like clockwork. This included having group photos with country leaders, issuing strong comments on pressing issues, signing agreements for the benefit of the Philippines, deepening bilateral relations with specific countries and, most importantly, meeting with local Filipino communities that gave him resounding welcome akin to a rock star.
These conferences served as worthy opening acts to what was in store for the Philippines the following week – the rocking state visit of President Xi Jinping of the Republic of China from 20 to 21 November. The visit drew the attention of the world and the public since it was done amid the recent exchange of barbs by President Xi and US Vice President Mike Pence at the APEC Meeting on the territorial issues over the West Philippine Sea (WPS) where the Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia are all very much involved.
Not wasting any time on this matter, President Xi went first to Brunei, bringing with him promises of economic development for oil-rich Brunei, the smallest of the claimant countries. This was then stepped up with the state visit to friendly Philippines where the same issue again hovered over all the scheduled meetings and lavish ceremonies.
Upon his arrival on 20 November, President Xi was whooshed to Malacañang Palace to meet President Duterte and his daughter Davao City Mayor Sara Duterte to sign several key memoranda of understanding and agreements, which included, among other things, joint agreements regarding the Belt and Road Initiative, joint exploration for oil and gas reserves and several infrastructure developments. Of all that was signed, may I mention that I am most hopeful for the contract on the North-South Rail Project, something that we badly need.
In the evening, President Xi was treated to the traditional state dinner, an event fit for China’s paramount leader, who was ranked by Forbes Magazine as the most powerful and influential person in the world. The dinner was attended by the country’s who’s who in politics, and social media was flooded with selfies and videos of Lea Salonga serenading our Chinese guests, alongside posts about gridlock in Bonifacio Global City due to the lockdown surrounding Shangri-La at the Fort Manila, Xi’s chosen hotel.
The next day, former President and House Speaker Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Senate President Tito Sotto and their colleagues from Congress met with President Xi at his hotel for a brief discussion, a strategic political move by the Chinese, as he spent the evening with the Executive branch, then the following morning with the Legislative branch. Speaker Arroyo picked his entourage well, as she was joined by House members of Chinese descent: Deputy Speaker Arthur Yap, Reps. Frederick Siao and Dennis Laogan and former Speaker and Chair of the Committee on Foreign Relations Rep. Sonny Belmonte.
During the discussion, President Xi emphasized the important role that Congress plays at this historic point in Chinese and Philippine relations and acknowledged the membership of Speaker Arroyo as an elected board director of the Boao Forum in Asia, also known as the “Asian Davos,” which is tasked in forwarding regional economic integration. As expected, the WPS issue was passed upon where President Xi stated a peaceful and cooperative approach would be best to discuss anything regarding the territorial claims of the involved countries.
Perhaps the most memorable and personal remark made by President Xi was he was the vice mayor of Xiamen in 1988 when former President Corazon Aquino visited it to trace her Chinese ancestry. Coincidentally, Belmonte was a member of the Philippine delegation at that time. This further highlighted the shared history and cultural heritage that the Philippines and China have.
On a personal note, may I share that I have attended a number of meetings and events between Chinese and Filipinos. What struck me about President Xi is that he was remarkably smart with his words, and he sharply acknowledged the specific statements made by Senate President Sotto and Speaker Arroyo. His facial reactions and bodily movements showed sincerity in concern and purpose, showing an aura of ease, contrary to our stereotypical image of a hardworking Chinese man that is no-nonsense and uptight. He was always smiling, like a father figure, ready to extend a helping hand.
Of course, we must be wary of the Chinese gifts we receive. In politics, may it be in local or world arena, there is never a free lunch. Yet, this writer is of the opinion that our leaders are aware of this and the Philippines is economically ready to answer whatever debt, monetary or otherwise, may arise due to our relations with China. But first, let’s try to tone down our inflation and tighten our belts in the meantime.