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PHL pushes back Duterte's visit to Japan in favor of China - sources

Philippine government officials have initially scheduled President Rodrigo Duterte's trip to Japan ahead of the one to China but the arrangement was turned around,  disappointing Japanese officials, government sources have told GMA News Online.

In his meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in August 11 in Davao, sources said Duterte conveyed to the Japanese side that he wanted Japan to be his first foreign visit outside Southeast Asia – a pronouncement welcomed by Tokyo.

The visit was initially planned in the middle or in the third week of October, but a decision later was made for the president to travel to China around that time.

Duterte will be visiting Brunei on Oct. 16 to 18 before flying to Xiamen, China on the evening of Oct. 18. His meeting with his counterpart Xi Jinping is scheduled in Beijing on Oct. 20 and he is expected to fly back to Manila on Oct. 21, sources said.

After China, Duterte will be visiting Japan on Oct. 25 to 27, sources said.

"Japan is very disappointed when they learned about the change in schedule," one of the sources said.

Sources said Japan even arranged for Duterte to have an audience with the Japanese Emperor, which, according to them, was something that is "very hard" to get.

Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, who backs the arrangement where Duterte would visit Japan first before China, was in a week-long visit to the United States for a speaking engagement in Washington and to attend the United Nations General Assembly mid-September, when the sudden change in the President's travel plan was made, according to the sources.

The matter of which country a head of state visits first has high symbolic meanings in the diplomatic realm.

Japan, along with the United States, have supported the Philippine move to seek international arbitration against China over its massive claim in the South China Sea that overlaps with Manila’s territories.

China has steadfastly opposed the arbitration and prefers one on one negotiations with rival claimant countries to be able to prevent intervention by the US and its allies in what it says is an Asian problem.

Duterte has been very open about bolstering economic and defense ties with Beijing and even with Russia, while expressing hostility towards Manila’s long-time treaty ally, the US, which criticized his bloody war against illegal drugs.

His series of anti-US remarks and posturing has brought uncertainty to the Philippines’ historic ties with Washington, topped by a warning by him this week that he may break up relations with America and a new tirade against President Barack Obama, which Duterte told to “go to hell.”

Foreign Secretary Yasay echoed Duterte’s views, saying in a statement that “America has failed us.”

Duterte's visit to China, the first by a Philippine leader since Benigno Aquino III in 2011, signals Manila's readiness to improve ties with Beijing that has been strained by territorial disputes in the resource-rich South China Sea.

Relations between the Philippines and China considerably deteriorated when the Philippines brought it to international arbitration over the territorial issues in January 2013.

In July 12, an international tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands delivered a sweeping victory to the Philippines on the case it filed against China and invalidated Beijing's massive and historical claims on nearly the entire South China Sea.

The tribunal also ruled that no country can claim sovereign rights over the Manila-claimed Scarborough shoal, declaring it a traditional fishing ground for Filipino, Vietnamese and Chinese fishermen. China has refused to recognize the ruling.

China seized the shoal, called Panatag in Filipino, from the Philippines after a standoff in 2012 and barred Filipino fishermen access to the area.

Duterte said he wants China to comply with the ruling, but maintains a conciliatory stance towards Beijing, which accused the Philippine government under then President Aquino of stirring up tensions in the resource-rich waters.

The President's position indicates that he does not want to antagonize Beijing as the Philippines prepares for bilateral talks to repair strained ties with its Asian neighbor and for China to eventually allow Filipino fishermen back to Scarborough Shoal.—NB, GMA News