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Tuesday, February 28, 2017
- After months of rising tensions over disputed territories in the South China Sea, there are growing signs that the Philippine government is seeking to revive strained relations with Beijing. And no less than the Philippine President Benigno Aquino is spearheading the ongoing efforts to diplomatically resolve territorial disputes and prevent a disastrous conflict in the region.
The move, analysts contend, is partly inspired by lingering uncertainties over the U.S. military commitment to treaty allies such as the Philippines, which are yet to receive substantial military aid to augment their defence capabilities. But, it is the recognition of Beijing’s growing regional influence and the futility of a confrontational approach that has largely encouraged the Aquino administration to rebalance its China diplomacy.
Since late 2012, the Philippines has stepped up its international diplomacy to solicit external support and push back against what it perceives as China’s growing territorial assertiveness. Aside from accelerating negotiations to strengthen bilateral defence ties with Pacific powers such as Australia, Japan, and the U.S., the Philippines has also filed a legal complaint against China’s claim to a vast collection of territorial features stretching across the South China Sea.
These efforts were primarily led by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) under the guidance of Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who has enjoyed extensive ties with Washington and is widely recognised as one of the principal regional voices in favour of an increased U.S. military footprint in Asia.
In response, hawkish elements within China have threatened economic sanctions, while the Chinese Foreign Ministry has flatly rejected any calls for international arbitration of maritime disputes. The country’s top leadership, in turn, has largely ignored its Filipino counterparts in varying regional and international gatherings, leading to a breakdown in bilateral communications.
Meanwhile, the Chinese military and para-military forces have expanded their operations across the disputed features and consolidated control over already occupied territories in the South China Sea, namely the Scarborough Shoal, which was the site of a dangerous standoff between Philippine and Chinese forces in mid-2012.
Yet, without substantial diplomatic and military support from external allies such as the U.S. and robust regional support for a diplomatic resolution of the South China Sea disputes, the Philippines stood little chance of coaxing China into meaningful concessions. Things came to head in October, when (a) U.S. President Barack Obama was forced to cancel his much-anticipated Asia trips to address a domestic political crisis, to the outrage of regional allies expecting deeper American commitment to Asia, and (b) the revelation of serious disagreements in the ongoing Philippine-U.S. negotiations over an expanded defence pact.
“Both sides are conscious that no action shall be taken to exacerbate the situation,” President Aquino argued during the early-October APEC Summit in Bali, trying to dispel criticism that China is dragging its feet on developing a regional Code of Conduct (CoC) to peacefully resolve territorial disputes. “I cannot say we are that close to signing the Code of Conduct, but everyone is now convinced that we need to talk about it. So, the solution is now moving forward to end the territorial disputes in the South China.”
More importantly, in late October Aquino went as far as contradicting his own cabinet members, namely defence secretary Voltaire Gazmin, when he vigorously denied the earlier claims that Chinese forces have been placing ‘concrete blocks’ in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, allegedly as a prelude to establishing military fortifications in the area.
He told a large gathering of foreign reporters in Manila that concrete blocks were “very old” and “not a new phenomenon”, most likely dating back to the Cold War era. He also mentioned his earlier conversations with Premier Li Keqiang on the sidelines of the early October ASEAN Summit, emphasising how despite disagreements “at least [both sides] are talking.”
In succeeding weeks it became clear that Manila and Washington were still wide apart on striking a new defence deal to allow deeper bilateral military cooperation and expanded U.S. rotational presence in the Philippines.
“It is at the stage where there is negotiation so it’s a give and take process. Right now, we have not agreed on the issues raised,” Gazmin lamented (Nov. 5), admitting an impasse in the ongoing defence negotiations. “They [U.S.] have proposals that we do not agree with. But that’s how negotiations are.”
Crucially, Gazin didn’t mention any date for the next round of negotiations, reflecting the profound nature of bilateral disagreements. Reportedly, there is lack of a agreement on the nature and duration of “pre-positioning” of U.S. defence equipment in the Philippines, its “ownership”, as well as the added value of a new agreement: specifically, what types of military assets would be leased to Philippines in exchange for greater base access.
The combination of continuing uncertainties regarding Philippine-U.S. defence relations and China’s growing economic might, which has been boosted by its offer to establish a multi-billion Asian infrastructure fund to aid the development of Southeast Asian neighbours, has strengthened Aquino’s call for reviving bilateral ties with Beijing.
It is however far from clear whether China is willing to reciprocate Aquino’s overtures, given the rising popular nationalism in the country, which has precipitated a more muscular regional maritime policy. This may, experts argue, explain China’s initially modest pledge of aid to the typhoon-stricken Philippines, much to the disappointment of those who expected more humanitarian pro-activeness on the part of Asia’s biggest economy.
With the U.S. and Japan taking the lead on providing pivotal financial and logistical assistance to thousands of victims of Haiyan in the Philippines, and facing growing criticism in the region for its ‘meagre’ pledge, China eventually decided to increase its humanitarian assistance from 100,000 dollars to 1.64 million dollars, with Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly offering his “heartfelt sympathies” in a phone conversation with Aquino.
Overall, what is clear is that the Philippines is re-calibrating its bilateral relations with China, and is seeking an alternative approach to resolve territorial disputes. In the end, however, it will take a joint effort by both sides to overcome the recent escalation in tensions and resuscitate diplomatic channels to peacefully resolve the disputes.