MANILA, Philippines – After stepping out of his plane to a cloudy Tuesday morning on November 20, China’s President gave his Filipino welcomers a small benevolent smile and slight wave of the hand.
However careful Xi Jinping may be with his body language, his arrival jolted the Philippines to attention. Here was the big man in the neighborhood, the regional power, coming to visit.
His first salute upon stepping on Philippine soil was from Armed Forces of the Philippines chief Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr, whose Navy has had its share of tense moments with Xi’s own troops in the West Philippine Sea – and still do.
Filipino-Chinese take centerstage
Malacañang’s Rizal Hall, venue of the state banquet for Xi, was decked out in Christmas decor but the predominantly red colors also gave the impression of a Chinese theme.
Red poinsettia skirted the presidential table, a plush red carpet covered the heavy-wood floor, orbs of roses towered over round dining tables.
It was the perfect setting for a banquet attended by prominent Filipino-Chinese and Chinese nationals close to Duterte and his government.
Traditional state dinner guests were there – Cabinet members, ambassadors, lawmakers, business tycoons – but it was the Chinese connection that took centerstage.
Screenshot from RVTM
Screenshot from RVTM
In attendance were Filipino-Chinese businessmen – Dennis Uy, Lucio and Michael Tan, the Sys, Carlos Chan, among others. Chinese nationals who’ve won Duterte’s trust – his consultant Michael Yang and drug rehabilitation center donor Jose Kho, were also there.
The event called to mind Duterte’s Chinese connection – his friendship with Filipino-Chinese businessmen in Davao City, their support for his presidential bid, and his frequent declarations that his grandfather is Chinese.
The next morning, Xi would meet leaders of the Filipino-Chinese community in his hotel for a photo opportunity. Even on the first day of his visit, some members of that community waited outside the hotel to catch a glimpse of him.
Some Filipino-Chinese families also gather outside the hotel, hoping to get a glimpse of Xi #XiJinpingPH @rapplerdotcom pic.twitter.com/RjuPRteTzM — Sofia Tomacruz (@sofiatomacruz) November 20, 2018
But for those suspicious of Xi’s intentions, the pageantry of it all was beside the point.
What would the visit deliver in terms of concrete agreements and benefits for the Philippines?
The number of agreements signed was impressive – 29. This is more than double the number of deals signed during Duterte’s state visit to China in 2016 (13 agreements) and his visit to Russia (10 agreements).
Of the 29, ten were mere memoranda of understanding, 3 were agreements (including a loan agreement for the New Centennial Water Source-Kaliwa Dam Project), 2 were commercial contracts, and the rest were a mix of letters, importation protocols, and cooperation programs.
Duterte watched with hands together, elbows on his chair's handles, as the seemingly interminable exchange of documents went on – with no gum-chewing this time, unlike during his first visit to Beijing.
Photo by Mark Cristino/Pool/Agence France-Presse
The insistent calls led Malacañang to promise that the government would release “pertinent information” to the public at the right time.
The opaqueness of the deals casts a shadow over the visit.
But perhaps the most all-encompassing and impactful of the agreements was the one not laid out in any contract. Xi and Duterte agreed they would "elevate" their countries' ties up to a "comprehensive strategic cooperation."
Xi’s last activity in Manila hearkened to another age of flourishing China-Philippines relations. On Wednesday, November 21, he held a meeting with Senate President Vicente Sotto III and House Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
Photo courtesy of Arroyo's office
Arroyo’s presidency was the last time the Philippines enjoyed good ties with China. But it was also a time of shady deals, most memorable among them the NBN-ZTE deal, which had been mired in corruption allegations. A joint exploration deal signed then is being challenged in the Supreme Court.
Adjustments for Xi
Like in most state visits, a degree of inconvenience for ordinary Filipinos could be expected. But perhaps not to the extent seen during Xi’s visit.
Two cities, Manila and Taguig, called off classes just for him. Road closures in both cities led to traffic and pesky rerouting.
There was another unprecedented adjustment.
Malacañang defied previous traditions for state visits by allowing the Chinese flag to be the lone flag that trailed Xi and Duterte during the review of the honor guards.
In all other past state visits, this was never done. Previous scenarios saw the use of only the Philippine presidential flag, the use of both the presidential flag and the flag of the visiting country, or no flag at all.
Historian and former Presidential Communications undersecretary Manuel Quezon III said the decision to use only the Chinese flag appeared intended to “give maximum prestige” to Xi, at the cost of tradition.
Photos of the Chinese flag taking centerstage in the Malacañang ceremony flooded social media during Xi’s last hours in Manila. They left many Filipinos asking, what does China want from its friendship with the Philippines?
By Wednesday afternoon, a weak but steady rain dampened the departure of Xi at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport.
Xi and Duterte are fond of using weather and climate as metaphors for improving Philippine-China ties – referring to a “springtime embrace” after a “cold winter” under the previous Philippine presidency.
A visit that began with a “refreshing breeze,” as described by Xi at the start of his bilateral meeting with Duterte, ended on a rainy day.
But cheerful blasts from trumpets dispelled the gloom of the weather as Xi walked up steps, with black umbrella in hand, into a plane that would take him back to his part of the neighborhood. – Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.