BEIJING - Talks this week between Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping will be closely scrutinized for signs of how seriously the new Philippine leader intends to pursue a shift away from Washington and toward Beijing, a move that could have a major impact on regional power dynamics.
Duterte's elevation to the presidency 3 1/2 months ago has already turned relations between Washington and Manila on their head. His courtship of Beijing could create further disruptions given the prospect of a long-standing U.S. treaty ally lining up with Washington's key rival for influence in Asia.
Duterte was greeted by Foreign Minister Wang Yi on arrival at Beijing's main airport on Tuesday evening. He was set to meet Thursday with Xi, Premier Li Keqiang and third-ranking official Zhang Dejiang, the head of the legislature.
"This is a historic visit and presents an opportunity for relations between China and the Philippines to restart on a fresh, more positive footing," Wang told reporters earlier Tuesday. Duterte was due to return home on Friday.
Under Duterte's predecessor, Benigno Aquino III, the decades-old U.S.-Philippine alliance had flourished. A quarter-century after a wave of anti-U.S. nationalism forced the closure of American military bases in the Philippines, Manila was poised to allow more access for U.S. forces to counter an assertive China — an important boost for President Barack Obama's "pivot" placing more emphasis on the Asia-Pacific.
Those gains now hang in the balance, although the Obama administration says it would welcome a reduction in the China-Philippine tensions that had spiraled over the disputed South China Sea, increasing the risk of a military conflict that could embroil the U.S., which has a mutual defence treaty with the Philippines.
"The prospect of the Philippines pulling out of a long stretch of very tense relations with Beijing is a desirable one," Daniel Russel, top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, told reporters in Washington last week.
Although the U.S. and China are often portrayed as great powers vying for the loyalty of small nations in Asia, neither side wants a confrontation. But there's uncertainty in Washington about where the talks between Duterte and Xi will lead.
In an interview last week with China's state broadcaster, Duterte said he wasn't looking to sever the historical connection with the U.S. "No, I am not breaking away. I just want to be friendly with everybody," the president said in the interview, which was broadcast by CCTV on Wednesday.
The U.S. says it supports dialogue on territorial issues, so long as the Philippines sticks by a July ruling from an international tribunal in a case brought by Aquino's administration that found that China's sweeping claims in the South China Sea were invalid under a U.N. treaty.
"I do not believe that public opinion in the Philippines or the national interest of the Philippines would support the relinquishing of Philippine rights, territory or sovereignty, and I can't imagine that is President Duterte's intention," Russel said.
If Manila were to sideline that ruling in reaching an accommodation with Beijing — perhaps with the prospect of increased access to fisheries or some other economic benefit — it would undermine what has been a sustained U.S. diplomatic effort to get the world to respect the tribunal ruling and for China to adhere to international law in seas crucial for trade.
The U.S. advocacy for freedom of navigation and peaceful resolution of disputes has been a pillar of Obama's outreach into Southeast Asia, where nations have looked to Washington to bolster its presence to counter China's assertive behaviour. The planned rotation of U.S. forces at five Philippine military bases, agreed by Aquino, was viewed as essential to that effort.
But Duterte's outbursts against the U.S. have put in doubt future military co-operation. He has said that the Philippines is stopping joint military exercises and that he opposes joint patrols with the U.S. Navy in the South China Sea. He has also said he wants U.S. counterterrorism troops out of his country's south and has criticized Obama and the U.S. ambassador in Manila in crude terms for condemning his bloody extrajudicial crackdown on drug dealers and users.
Administration officials say that the U.S. commitment to the alliance remains "ironclad" and that they have gotten no official notification about the removal of U.S. military assets and personnel.
Chinese officials have refrained from commenting on Duterte's domestic program and say they expect Duterte's visit to help build trust and place the territorial dispute back on their preferred bilateral track. Duterte has said he merely wants to obtain renewed access for Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012.
Both sides have played up the economic benefits of improved relations, with scores of Philippine business leaders accompanying Duterte and China considering financing billions of dollars in infrastructure projects.
Beijing would be happy to shelve the issue altogether, focusing instead on economic exchanges, say Chinese government-backed scholars.
"In general, the talks between Duterte and the Chinese leaders will focus on economic aid to the Philippines and the Chinese leaders will continue to stick to the dual-track thought in handling the South China Sea issue," said Li Jinming, professor at the Institute for South China Sea Studies, Xiamen University.
The dual-track describes China's approach of dealing with territorial disputes on a bilateral basis while negotiating a code of conduct to avoid confrontations with the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
Despite a lack of solid progress, China sees bilateral talks — without input from the U.S. or other parties it considers outsiders — as the only possible framework for discussing issues of sovereignty and avoiding disputes, said Zhao Gancheng, director of the Center for Asia-Pacific Studies at the Shanghai Institute for International Studies.
"No one expects an immediate solution to the territorial disputes and everyone knows the negotiations can last a long time. Therefore, the sovereignty issue will not be the focus during Duterte's talks with the Chinese leader," Zhao said.
Pennington reported from Washington.