Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte assumes a firing stance as he announces issuing side arms to army troopers earlier this month. (Bullit Marquez/AP)

BEIJING — Here is a word rarely used to describe Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte: soft.

He is famous for lighting rhetorical fireworks where a single match might suffice. He used a slang term that translates as “son of a whore” while blasting President Obama. He offered the European Union an unequivocal (and unprintable) “f‑‑‑ you.”

That’s why it’s worth pausing to consider his measured language ahead of a four-day visit to Beijing that began Tuesday. A man who has cursed the pope and called for the mass killing of criminals said he planned to talk “softly” to secure a “soft landing” for Sino-Philippine ties. “We want to talk about friendship,” Duterte, once nicknamed “the Death Squad Mayor,” told Chinese media.

Duterte's whispers of friendship will please China — and rile the United States. That's because this week's visit has the potential to reshape the regional balance of power, complicating the Obama administration's “pivot” to Asia and bolstering Beijing.

Duterte will tour the smoggy Chinese capital, visiting with Philippine residents, signing trade deals and securing some critical face time with President Xi Jinping. Duterte's stated goal is to “reset” relations with China, ending several years of bitter fighting over rival maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Duterte's position on the South China Sea is not clear. During his presidential campaign, he vowed to ride a water scooter to the Scarborough Shoal, which China seized in 2012, to personally plant the Philippine flag.

On Monday, he struck a more careful tone: “You cannot expect me to ride — I don't even know how to swim,” he said in an interview with Al Jazeera.

Indeed, for all his tough talk, Duterte seems increasingly willing to strike a deal. When an international court ruled against China's claims to the South China Sea, he did not push the matter. Instead, he has moved to defuse the issue, promising, for instance, to fight for the rights of Philippine fishermen by engaging, not antagonizing, the Chinese.

Beijing can offer a lot in terms of trade and investment, including money to help Duterte's bloody domestic campaign against suspected drug dealers and users. Although the West has criticized Duterte's self-described “drug war,” China has stayed mum. A Chinese tycoon stepped in to fund a “mega” drug rehabilitation center. There may be more cash to come.

Finding a South China Sea “win” will be tougher. Duterte promised to get Philippine fisherman back to waters near the Scarborough Shoal. Although Beijing will not cede ground on its claims of sovereignty, it could allow limited fishing access, handing Duterte a domestic victory and putting China in compliance with parts of the tribunal ruling, albeit in a roundabout way.

The question is what Beijing wants in return. China will probably ask for joint exploration of contested waters, but its broader goals are geostrategic.

Beijing does not want the U.S. military to expand its presence in Asia. Over the past few months, Duterte has repeatedly expressed similar views. He called for the withdrawal of U.S. Special Forces from the southern island of Mindanao and the cancellation of joint maritime patrols and U.S.-Philippine military exercises. He has also talked about closer military ties with China and Russia.

It's not clear whether Duterte will do his own pivot away from Washington, or whether it's just talk. The vast majority of Filipinos still hold the United States in high esteem, and Washington continues to give the country financial and military support.

Even Duterte's allies, such as former president Fidel Ramos, have questioned his sudden shift in allegiance. “Are we throwing away decades of military partnership, tactical proficiency, compatible weaponry, predictable logistics and soldier-to-soldier camaraderie just like that?” he asked in a recent letter.

The answer to that question, and much else, depends on what Duterte dares to say next.

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