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Global Geopolitics

Chinese Shadow-Boxing Hurts Ties With Philippines

MANILA, Feb 21 2014 (IPS) - Dissatisfied with the Philippines’ response to the 2010 Manila hostage crisis, which led to the death of eight Hong Kong residents and injuries to seven others, authorities took the unprecedented decision late January to impose travel restrictions against Filipino officials. The restrictions took effect Feb. 5.

Visa-free travel privileges for Philippine diplomats were revoked, affecting up to 800 Filipino officials, who visit or pass through Hong Kong each year.

The punitive measures came after three years of fruitless negotiations between officials from the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) and Manila. Under rising domestic pressure, Hong Kong authorities have demanded that Philippine President Benigno Aquino III formally apologise for the incident and provide proper compensation for all the victims and their families before any rehabilitation of bilateral relations takes place.

On Aug. 23, 2010, Rolando Mendoza, former senior inspector of the Manila Police District (MPD), hijacked a tourist bus carrying 21 Hong Kong nationals. In exchange for releasing the hostages, he demanded a judicial review of his dismissal from office on allegations of extortion. After long hours of tense negotiations, in which hopes of a peaceful resolution of the crisis gradually arose, Manila city officials opted for a rescue operation, which led to deaths and injuries among the hostages.

Aquino has refused to apologise on behalf of the Philippine state, arguing that the tragic incident (August 2010) was the result of the criminal actions of a disaffected Filipino citizen. Mendoza reportedly shot the hostages and later himself during the rescue operation.

The Philippines contends that it has provided compensation to the victims and already apologised for the incident, and there were hopes that Manila city authorities, who oversaw the botched rescue operation during the hostage crisis, would have separately assuaged Hong Kong at the local government level.

The Hong Kong decision was relayed through the Chinese embassy in Manila, with Beijing expressing its support for the semi-autonomous city-state on the issue. Many in the Philippines tend to see the latest sanctions as part of a larger Chinese strategy to isolate the country amid rising territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Bilateral Philippine-China relations have hit a new low, further undermining the prospects of a diplomatic resolution of bilateral disputes. And there are growing worries over the fate of up to 160,000 Filipino overseas workers, who are mostly domestic workers living in precarious conditions in Hong Kong.

“[The victims and their families] are seeking an apology from the Philippine government for the failure and lapses of their officials in handling the rescue operation,” Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-yin stated, placing the blame on the Philippine state rather than the hostage-taker.

Hong Kong authorities have warned of more sanctions in the absence of a satisfactory response from the Philippines, framing their latest decision as a calibrated warning to avoid a total breakdown in bilateral relations. “I urge the Philippine government to demonstrate sincerity and resolve in bringing the discussion to a satisfactory conclusion so that we do not have to implement further sanctions,” Leung said.

There is a common perception in the Philippines that Hong Kong would not have made such an unprecedented decision – imposing sanctions on a foreign country – without prior approval from Beijing authorities. As a result, some Filipinos see Hong Kong’s policies as a proxy for Chinese approach to the Philippines.

“The [hostage crisis incident] affects the feelings of the Chinese, including Hong Kong compatriots,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying declared, reflecting the deep resonance of the issue among the broader Chinese population.

Beijing also went so far as to prod the Philippines into fulfilling Hong Kong’s demands, with Hua stating: “We urge the Philippine side to face squarely the concerns of the victims and their families, show sincerity and solve the relevant issues at an early date.”

Alarmed by the possibility of more disruptive sanctions, which could seriously undermine trade relations, affect job opportunities for Filipinos in Hong Kong, and reduce tourist exchanges between both countries, the Philippine government opted for appeasement instead of retaliatory sanctions.

“We are stepping away from the path instead of going for common ground,” the Philippines’ presidential communications secretary Herminio Coloma lamented, characterising Hong Kong’s decision as a provocative action that could seriously undermine ongoing negotiations over the issue. Shortly before the sanctions took effect, Coloma defended the Philippine government, emphasising how the Aquino administration is “[still] seeking a solution and that is where we continue to be until the present time.”

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), which was directly affected by Hong Kong’s latest measure, called into question the validity of the sanctions, and argued that a “closure” had already been achieved on the matter.

“A substantive closure on the Quirino Grandstand incident had already been arrived at three years ago with the previous Hong Kong (Special Administrative Region) government and the victims as well as their families,” DFA spokesperson Raul Hernandez stated.

In November 2013, the Philippines sent a high-level delegation to Hong Kong, delivering 2.28 million Philippine pesos (51,000 dollars) to one of the victims of the hostage crisis. It was the first payout by the Aquino administration to the victims.

“To bring the issue to its final conclusion, the Philippines remains committed to manifest compassion to the victims and their relatives, and is ready to turn over the additional tokens of solidarity from the Filipino people,” Hernandez declared.

Other Filipino officials expressed outrage at Hong Kong’s decision, while some legislators called for a retaliatory response. For some Filipinos, it was particularly insulting for a SAR like Hong Kong to impose sanctions on the Philippines, which is a sovereign nation-state. But the Aquino administration ultimately decided to tone down tensions and avoid a downward spiral of retaliatory actions, stating that arriving at a common understanding and helping the affected families was their priority.

Former president and current mayor of Manila Joseph Estrada also tried to resolve bilateral disputes by offering to intercede on behalf of the Philippine government and offer an official apology. Also concerned about the welfare of Filipino workers in Hong Kong, Philippine Vice-President Jejomar Binay pleaded with Hong Kong officials to not introduce any further measure that could jeopardise the livelihood and wellbeing of the large Filipino community in the Chinese city-state.

Overall, it seems that the Philippine government has prioritised the prevention of more disruptive sanctions, but it is far from clear whether it is willing to go the extra mile to appease Hong Kong officials. In the meantime, the broader Philippine-China relationship hangs in the balance, and there are little signs of a thaw in bilateral ties anytime soon.

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