MANILA — Around two hours before meeting U.S. President Donald Trump at a dinner for Asia-Pacific leaders on the eve of regional summit, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte cast further doubt on American economic leadership by describing China, which has the the world’s second biggest GDP, as the global economic leader.
“Today China is the number one economic power, and we have to be friends,” Duterte said, speaking at a business forum held at a Manila casino.
President Trump arrived in Manila on Sunday, the last leg of a five country Asia tour that has seen him feted by the leaders of Japan and China but at odds with much of the region over the direction of trade policy. While the U.S. under Trump wants to renegotiate existing arrangements and work one on one with countries, China and Japan are promoting multilateral deals, including the Trans Pacific Partnership, which does not involve China but is now being led by Japan. The TPP was one of Obama administration’s main foreign policy efforts but was ditched by Trump soon after he took office.
Another potential flashpoint at the Manila meetings could be the disputed South China Sea, a thriving waterway through which much of China and Japan’s energy imports pass.
Trump has offered to mediate the multi-country maritime dispute while in Manila, a move unlikely to be accepted by China. Beijing protests against the U.S. naval presence in the region, where military tensions have flared intermittently in recent years.
“Nobody can afford go to war, not even the big powers” Duterte said, echoing comments made before he was elected president last year, when he said he would reduce tensions with Beijing in the hope of attracting Chinese investment. In contrast, though he has spoken warmly of China’s leader Xi Jinping since taking office, Trump railed against China during the U.S. presidential election in 2016.
Ahead of a formal one on one meeting with Trump scheduled for Monday, Duterte made reference to his own meeting with the Chinese President, in a just-concluded trade gathering in Da Nang, Vietnam, which was also attended by Trump.
Duterte said that Xi told him that “as President of China I want to save lives, I do not want to waste lives on a useless war that cannot be won.”
China claims most of the South China Sea, in a sweeping u-shaped arc that was deemed illegal by an arbitration tribunal last year. The case was brought by the previous Philippine government but the outcome has been mostly ignored by Duterte. China’s claim overlaps smaller portions of the sea claimed by several other countries in the region. The sea is known as the West Philippine Sea in the Philippines and the East Sea in Vietnam, another claimant to part of the disputed waters.
Trump has praised the voluble Philippine president for the deadly anti-drugs campaign that has seen thousands of people killed, many extrajudicially, since Duterte took office a year and half ago. The two men were seen on Sunday night raising a toast together at the opening dinner for the Manila summits, which are being attended by heads of government from around the Asia Pacific region.
Before Trump’s arrival in Manila, Robespierre Bolivar, spokesman for the Philippine foreign ministry, said that their one on one meeting would stick to serious matters.
“We expect them to discuss strategic issues. It is the only security alliance the Philippines has with any country,” Bolivar said, sidestepping questions about how well the two outspoken and unpredictable presidents would get on.
“We have been trying to strengthen co-operation with the United States on issues of common concern such as terrorism, cybercrime, disaster and humanitarian relief, we believe these will be on the table when the 2 leaders meet.”
But before meeting Trump, Duterte, whose rhetoric has prompted frequent comparisons with his American counterpart, closed off his Sunday speech with some typical repartee that drew laughs from the the high roller crowd at the huge Manila casino.
“I want to meet everybody, especially the ladies,” he said, telling security personnel to allow the audience approach him.
“If you want to have a picture with me, with me fine..[..]..I’ll pull you in,” he said, before adding, ambiguously, that “nothing comes free in this world.”
*this reporting went into shared byline stories in The Daily Telegraph, Los Angeles Times as well as live TV on France 24Show