Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took his rapprochement with China to a new level on Monday by joking that China should consider absorbing his country and turning it into a province of the People’s Republic.
“If you want, just make us a province, like Fujian,” Duterte said to a meeting of the Chinese Business Club. “Province of Philippines, Republic of China.”
Duterte spoke warmly of Chinese President Xi Jinping, saying that he implicitly believed China’s promises not to build anything else on the disputed Scarborough Shoal because “Xi Jinping said it himself and he’s a man of honor.”
That is remarkably sporting of Duterte, given that China broke its previous promises to avoid militarizing disputed waters without a moment’s hesitation, turning islands claimed by the Philippines—with the support of an international court ruling completely ignored by Beijing—into military fortresses.
Duterte actually acknowledged this in his remarks but shrugged off China’s provocative construction projects by assuming the Chinese would never use those assets to attack the Philippines. They might use those weapons to attack the United States or interfere with freedom of navigation along one of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, but that is no business of Rodrigo Duterte’s.
“Military bases, I must admit it, but is it intended for us? You must be joking. It’s not intended for us. It’s really intended for those who China thinks will destroy them and that is America. We aren’t part of that,” he said.
Perhaps most oddly, Duterte sang the praises of joint resource exploration with China—“Just ignore the missiles there, it’s not intended for us,” he advised—while somehow believing Beijing will allow the Philippines to unilaterally control oil fields discovered in parts of the South China Sea it still claims.
“Remember, that is ours. The whole of the South China Sea, you have already claimed it, but this Philippine Rise is ours,” he told Beijing from the stage at the Chinese Business Club, insisting that research and development by any and all foreign entities in the Philippine Rise must be cleared by his government.
This is not the first time Duterte has “joked” about China annexing the Philippines; he did it almost a year ago at a meeting of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines, blaming the United States for failing to check Chinese aggression by flooding the region with aircraft carriers. The context of his sarcastic comments, then and now, was needling the U.S. for not putting its muscle behind Philippine territorial claims long ago.
Duterte is, in essence, saying that China has already checkmated the U.S. and allied forces in the South China Sea, and he is just trying to cut the best deal he can with the new regional hegemon. He is also sending that message to his own people, who favor a stronger stance against China’s annexation of Philippine territory by overwhelming margins. Duterte is telling his voters to blame America for the weak cards he has to play and setting a very low bar for his own success in dealing with Beijing.
The Diplomat argued on Monday that reports of big diplomatic breakthroughs between China and the Philippines are overhyped, consisting largely of reporting incremental progress on old agreements as great new developments.
From this perspective, the real story at the moment is the Duterte administration seeking to deflect accusations that it is too soft on China while sending China a few signals to indicate that it must still be taken seriously as a negotiating partner on matters like development rights in the Philippine Rise.
Perhaps the ultimate audience for Duterte’s jokes about China absorbing the Philippines entirely is in Beijing, as he very gently makes fun of them for acting so aggressively in disputed waters that they might as well be invading and conquering his country. The joke may yet be on him.