Philippines businessmen to accompany Duterte to China: sources

MANILA (Reuters) - Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte will visit China from Oct. 19-21 accompanied by a business delegation, business and diplomatic sources said on Thursday, signaling his intent to set sovereignty squabbles aside and forge a stronger commercial relationship with Beijing.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte arrives at Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi, Vietnam September 28, 2016. REUTERS/Kham

The decision to invite business leaders suggests Duterte is following through with his vow to make peace with China and heal wounds that have festered since Manila lodged a legal challenge to Beijing’s claims to most of the South China Sea.

Several sources with direct knowledge of the plan said about two dozen Filipino businessmen would join Duterte when he goes to Beijing. Business groups had been invited to submit names of individuals to join the delegation.

According to one diplomatic source, Duterte would meet both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing. It was not immediately clear who the business delegation would meet in China and what would be discussed.

The trip also shows Duterte intends to re-fashion a foreign policy for years aligned with the United States and its allies. He has spoken only vaguely of his strategy, but has singled out Russia and China as would-be commercial partners.

Duterte said on Wednesday joint marine drills with the United States would be the last.

Philippine officials said they were awaiting clarification but Duterte’s comments signal he is willing to test the limits of Manila’s historic alliance with Washington, which has provided important defense support for the Philippines and helped the United States further its Asia rebalance strategy in the face of an increasingly assertive China.

The Philippines president’s foreign policy pronouncements have been baffling at times. Despite his outreach towards China, he has accused Beijing of bullying Filipino fishermen and being dishonest about its activities in the disputed Scarborough Shoal.

China lost to the Philippines in an international arbitration ruling in July. Beijing refuses to recognize the case.

Moves to reach out to China looked to have hit a snag on Tuesday when sources close Fidel Ramos, Duterte’s special envoy tasked with rebuilding tattered ties with Beijing, said a trip planned for this week had suddenly been canceled.

In a short statement to Reuters on Thursday, China’s foreign ministry said the door was always open to Ramos.

“Mr. Ramos is an old friend of China. China welcomes him to visit at any time,” it said.

Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales, Manolo Serapio Jr and Manuel Mogato in MANILA and Benjamin Lim and Michael Martina in BEIJING; Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan