Philippines seeks Duterte visits to Japan, China next month

Diplomats in the Philippines are in talks with counterparts in Japan and China to arrange visits for their controversial President Rodrigo Duterte at the end of next month, officials in Manila said on Friday.

Dates were still being worked out for the proposed trips by the outspoken leader, several officials said, remaining anonymous because they were not authorised to speak to media.

A Japanese foreign ministry official confirmed plans were being made. There was no immediate response from China.

Philippine relations with Japan are warm but those with China have long been frosty over territorial wrangles in the South China Sea.

Duterte has repeatedly said conflict was pointless and he wants to get along and do business with Beijing.

Some analysts believe Duterte's uncharacteristic verbal restraint towards China, in contrast to his stinging rebukes of the United States, United Nations and European Union, shows he is hedging in pursuit of his goal of an independent foreign policy and reducing reliance on former colonial ruler Washington.

China and the Philippines are trying to find a way to break the ice after a verdict by an arbitral court in The Hague in July invalidated China's claims to most of the South China Sea and gave Manila the legal high ground in the dispute.

During a speech on Thursday Duterte said he would go to China this year and, without elaborating, told Chinese businessmen: "you will see me often".

He reiterated he would not deviate from the court ruling but would seek a way out of a four-year deadlock at the disputed Scarborough Shoal and for China's coastguard to let Filipino fish there unimpeded. The arbitration panel ruled that no one country can legally control that shoal.

A source in the Duterte's office said it was possible former president Fidel Ramos, his new China envoy, could visit as early as next week to lay the groundwork for talks.

The relationship with Japan is far less complicated and Tokyo has agreed to provide 10 coastguard vessels to Manila to support its maritime security efforts.

Japan, a major investor across Southeast Asia, has been providing coastguard training and ships also to Vietnam, another country at odds with China over its maritime assertiveness.

The proposed October visits would be among Duterte's first as president in what has been a colourful, at times dramatic first three months in office.

He attended a summit of Asian leaders in Laos earlier this month and has been to Indonesia. He is due to visit Vietnam next week.