Xi Jinping arrived in the Philippines on Tuesday for the first state visit by a Chinese president in 13 years, with the administration of Rodrigo Duterte under pressure to show there is value in its “pivot” to China.
The state visit comes two years after Duterte declared he would pursue a more independent foreign policy, shifting the Philippines away from the United States and towards China in the hope of receiving billions of dollars for infrastructure development.
“The government needs to show that its concessions, its pivot to China, are actually worth it,” said Jamela Alindogan, Al Jazeera’s Manila correspondent. “It needs to show to the general public that its choice to move away from its long-standing ally, the United States, is beneficial.”
China has pledged about $24bn in loans and investments, although just three of dozens of planned projects have broken ground.
Xi and Duterte are expected to release a joint statement at the end of the two-day visit.
In a commentary published in Monday’s Philippine Star newspaper, Xi praised Duterte and described ties as being “a rainbow after the rain” and repeatedly called for the “proper handling” of rows over the South China Sea.
China has become increasingly assertive over the sea, which it claims in its entirety. The Philippines, Brunei, Vietnam and Malaysia also have territorial claims over parts of the waterway.
But Duterte’s handling of the issue has frustrated some Filipinos, who say he has been too submissive by refusing to criticise China’s military build-up or seek its compliance with a 2016 arbitration award that invalidated Beijing’s claim to the sea.
While public opinion has been largely supportive of Duterte’s presidency, surveys show persistent reservations about his China policy and disdain for the US.
A Social Weather Stations survey released late on Monday showed 84 percent of Filipinos felt it was wrong not to oppose China’s militarisation of its man-made islands, and 86 percent believed it was right to strengthen the Philippine military, especially the navy.
The poll of 1,200 people conducted in late September also showed trust in the US remained “very good”, but China was considered “poor”.
A small protest took place outside China’s embassy in Manila on Tuesday.
Asked about the survey, presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Duterte’s strategy was to avoid a potential “inferno” of conflict while reaping the rewards of improved business ties.
“They are not aware of the real geopolitics in the region. The president is a very cautious diplomat,” Panelo told news channel ANC.
“Rather than provoke, he’d rather talk with them and get some trade relations that will benefit this country.”
Some analysts note despite the so-called reorientation of foreign policy, relations with the US remain healthy.
“In terms of optics and in terms of rhetoric the president would seem to be moving away from the old alliance, but if you scratch beneath the surface you will see that defence cooperation with the US remains very much robust,” Lucio Blanco Pitlo, a lecturer in the Chinese Studies Programme at Ateneo de Manila University, told Al Jazeera.
“Recent reports that the US will repatriate the Balangiga Bells [also] bodes well for the improvement of relations.”
Panelo acknowledged China’s promised benefits were yet to materialise, but said Duterte was not scared to speak up.
“This is the best time for the president to exert pressure on the Chinese president,” he said. “Knowing the man, he’ll do that, he’s that kind of person.”
Other Philippine experts say delays in securing Chinese credit could be a blessing given the potential debt burden, echoing a warning delivered by US Vice President Mike Pence.