It was unprecedented.

China has welcomed a former leader to the State Guest House, and no less than President Xi Jinping has met and held talks with former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte.

China reserved the State Guest House to its valued guests. Not even President Ferdinand Marcos Jr was allowed to stay there when he made a state visit in early January this year. Marcos Jr. stayed in a hotel in Beijing.

Duterte and Xi may have discussed issues other than bilateral relations. It may also be purely coincidental the meeting took place a day before the International Criminal Court (ICC) would decide to accept or reject the Philippines’s appeal to stop the international court from pursuing an investigation into Duterte’s bloody and violent war on drugs that killed thousands.

There have been many wild speculations about the meeting but one thing is sure — China has found its trusted man to promote its political interests in the country.

Duterte is more than just a lobbyist. He is China’s top dog.

China was sending a strong message to the Philippines when it hosted a former president to discuss closer relations between the two countries, amid perceptions the sitting president was moving closer to the United States.

Marcos has granted Washington four new locations under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), including three sites close to Taiwan.

The Philippines and the United States have also stepped up joint military exercises, including in areas facing the disputed waters in the South China Sea.

There were even two live fire drills this year, demonstrating the Philippines and the United States’ joint efforts to hit and sink a “hostile” ship using rockets and artillery pieces from the shorelines.

It was a terribly bad move made by China. It clearly undermined Marcos’s leadership as a sitting president.

It was good optics for Duterte whose image was pulled up as a world leader even when he is no longer in power.

But it was bad for China, which chose to look back in the past instead of working with the present leader.

Since Marcos came to power in July last year, the Philippines had filed nearly 100 diplomatic protests due to China’s coercive activities in the South China Sea.

It appeared that the direct communications mechanism set up between Xi Jingping and Ferdinand Marcos Jr to resolve incidents of harassment were not working.

It doesn’t mean there were no harassments under Duterte when he was in power from 2016 to 2022.

There were such incidents but Duterte chose not to make them public.

There were also diplomatic protests but Duterte chose to keep them under wraps.

He even stopped the military from holding exercises facing the South China Sea and prevented the navy and maritime law enforcement agency from holding drills and joint patrols with the United States in the disputed seas.

There was an impression that there were less problems in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines during the Duterte presidency.

But these were wrong. China does not want publicity and does not want to internationalize the maritime dispute, preferring to deal with the problem bilaterally instead of involving other countries.

Duterte had agreed to China’s “divide-and-rule” tactics as Beijing showed displeasure to Washington’s interference in the maritime dispute.

Perhaps, China wanted to return to the time when Duterte was in power and it could do what it wanted, and the Philippines just kept silent on the abusive activities.

Duterte has been openly criticizing the Marcos government on its pro-United States policies, particularly about the granting of additional EDCA locations.

China has openly supported a staunch critic of Marcos’s foreign policy, and an emerging political opposition group.

The next presidential elections are light-years away in 2028 but China has chosen to gamble and place its bets behind a Duterte candidate.

Marcos must think about the implications of Duterte’s China visit. Obviously, the former president was invited to visit China.

He could not just pop up in Beijing and suddenly be accorded a princely reception at the State Guest House.

Clearly, China had an agenda. Duterte too had some plans of his own and their interests intersected.

It might not be just anti-US rhetoric. It must be something deeper politically. It might be beyond 2028.

For now, China has found its little brown boy in the Philippines — a true and loyal friend of China.