MANILA, Philippines – Despite concerns over the renewed spread of COVID-19 in China, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. will push through with his state visit to the regional economic giant from January 3 to 5, 2023.
“May mga pagbisita talaga na hindi natin puwede i-postpone (There are some visits that we cannot postpone),” Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Assistant Secretary Nathaniel Imperial told media during a briefing on Thursday, December 29.
The importance and urgency of the trip is understandable. According to Imperial, the visit will “set the tone of bilateral relations between the next five to six years.”
Why China matters
China is competing for influence – political, economic, and cultural – in the world stage, with the Asia Pacific being among the key arenas. The state visit is part of Marcos’ bid to jumpstart ties with China and Chinese President Xi Jinping’s relationship with the Philippines under a second Marcos president.
The two leaders first met during a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Bangkok in November 2022.
It will be a quick trip for Marcos who, in his first six months in office, has already flown to six different countries for state visits, official visits, and an unannounced leisure trip. Marcos and his delegation, led by Cabinet officials and a “sizable business delegation” will arrive in China late night of January 3.
The bulk of his meetings, particularly with China’s top government officials, take place on January 4. By January 5, Marcos will head back to Manila via a chartered Philippine Airlines flight.
Who is part of the delegation?
The DFA said Marcos’ official delegation to China will include key Cabinet officials heading the foreign affairs, trade, tourism, and information and communication departments, among others. His Cabinet members are expected to sign bilateral agreements with their Chinese counterparts during the state visit.
Also joining Marcos are two frequent members of the delegation – his cousin House Speaker Martin Romualdez, who has always joined Marcos in trips abroad; and House Deputy Speaker Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, who joined Marcos is his two most recent trips to Bangkok and to Brussels, Belgium. Arroyo is considered as an “old friend” of China.
First Lady Liza Araneta-Marcos, as in all the President’s previous trips, will join the state visit as well.
The Palace has never released a full list of Marcos’ delegation to his official and state visits, despite requests from media.
What will happen in China?
As in previous overseas trips, Economy and trade are top of mind for this latest presidential visit.
Imperial said a “sizable business delegation” will join the trip. Marcos is expected to join meetings with Chinese businessmen during the state visit. The Palace does not typically release the list of the business delegation who join presidential trips, although the delegation is usually led by Sabin Aboitiz, who heads Marcos’ Private Sector Advisory Council.
Marcos is meeting with China’s three top government officials – Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress Chairman Li Zhanshu, Premier Li Keqiang, and Xi – all on the same day. China will host a dinner banquet for Marcos, the First Lady, and his delegation, also that day.
All in all, 10 to 14 bilateral agreements are expected to be signed between the two countries. They include:
- Nickel processing
- Importation of durian (“durian diplomacy” as Imperial put it)
- Communication deal between the DFA and China’s foreign ministry
- Renewal of an agreement on the Philippines’ participation in the Belt and Road Initiative
- Digital cooperation, exchange of best practices in digital connectivity, data and emerging technologies
- Possible grants amounting to ¥1.5 billion (approximately P12 billion)
- Framework agreement for three priority bridges
- Tourism cooperation
For this trip, Marcos will not be able to meet with the Filipino community as China’s COVID-19 rules bars large gatherings. Such meetings have become a staple in most presidential visits prior to Marcos.
What protocols are in place?
China – up until recently – has been notorious for its strict COVID-19 rules and its “zero-COVID” dream. While the rules are set to relax – following unprecedented protests and amid a surge in cases there – they won’t kick in until after the state visit is over.
Amid reports that COVID is spreading unchecked in China, the Philippine government is adamant that the visit will push through. “Ang ating ugnayang panlabas sa China ay napaka-importante (Our relations with China are very important). We have received assurances from our Chinese hosts that all arrangements are being made to ensure the safety of our President and his delegation during the visit,” said Imperial.
A “bubble arrangement” will be in place for the Philippine delegation during the visit to minimize possible exposure to COVID-19.
Should a member of the delegation test positive for COVID-19, Imperial said arrangements are being made for a special quarantine facility where that person may isolate until they test positive. They will still have to follow China’s rules, however, and cannot join the delegation on the presidential plane when it flies back to Manila on January 5.
The elephant in the (West Philippine) sea
Imperial was careful in addressing questions on whether Marcos would bring up the West Philippine Sea – and China’s activities, including the construction of artificial islands there. “We do not wish to preempt what the President will say to his counterparts but the president will raise issues that affect bilateral relations, among them the West Philippine Sea,” he said.
Still, the DFA official said Marcos would “discuss the full range of our bilateral relations, both the positive aspects and the sensitive aspects of our relations,” including China’s activities there and the disputes over that part of the South China Sea.
Marcos’ position is for the Philippines to be a “friend of all and enemy to none.” On China and the West Philippine Sea, Marcos has said that maritime issues should not “define the totality of our relationship with China.”
“But nevertheless he acknowledges the importance of this issue to our interests and to the Filipino people. We expect that this issue will be discussed in the President’s meetings with Chinese leaders,” said Imperial.
Ahead of the visit, on December 29, China launched a Long March 3B rocket – a move that prompted the Philippine Space Agency to advise aircraft and vessel operators to take “precautionary measures,” since as debris from the rocket was projected to fall in the vicinity of Recto Bank in the West Philippine Sea.
In November, the Philippines sent a note verbale to China seeking “clarification” on an incident where Chinese coast guard personnel “forcibly retrieved” floating debris from members of the Philippine Navy in the West Philippine Sea. In 2022 alone, the Philippines issued 189 protests against China, 61 of which were filed under the Marcos government.
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