Aileen S P Baviera
Departing from the Aquino government’s opposition to Chinese aggression in the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has downplayed maritime disputes in favour of pursuing close economic and political ties with China.
This shift has been rewarded by pledges of major funds in support of Philippine infrastructure development, with a long wish list of projects now in the pipeline. Filipino fishermen have returned to their normal fishing activities around Scarborough Shoal, albeit under the watch of Chinese Coast Guard.
In contrast to its past efforts to isolate the Philippines diplomatically, China now sees the Philippines as a partner in its Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and Belt and Road Initiative . China has also come around to signing a Code of Conduct for the South China Sea with ASEAN.
While China’s island construction activities continue unabated, there have been no reports of the sort of provocations that had become almost daily media fare. There is no construction activity on Scarborough Shoal, a fact which some attribute to signalling from the US and Philippines that this would be a ‘red line’. Instead, dialogue between Manila and Beijing has resumed, following Duterte’s participation in the Belt and Road summit earlier this year.
Can relations between Manila and Beijing truly have transformed overnight, considering the hostility there was between the two only a year ago? Can the two nations’ vital interests have changed so drastically that they could simply turn a new page and start anew? Or do their goals remain the same, even though strategies took a significant turn?
Duterte’s strategy of not abandoning but de-emphasising and compartmentalising territorial and maritime issues is a wise move that can pay off if done smartly. By de-linking economic relations from management of the disputes, Manila can benefit from Beijing at a time when sustaining high growth and investor confidence in the Philippines usefully coincides with a massive investment drive by China as part of BRI. The challenge will be to ensure that China itself separates the two aspects of relations, considering that it had previously used economic leverage against the Philippines for political ends.
Duterte’s China policy shift also softens disagreement within ASEAN over the handling of the disputes. It forces the hand of some of the other stakeholders who were free-riding on Philippine efforts to do more on the issue.
Security relations with the US remain strong while cooperation with Japan and other countries is intensifying. Military-to-military contact and Coast Guard talks with China have also resumed, and could lead to renewed confidence-building and reduced risk of miscalculation.
So far, the policy shift’s relative success has arisen from some fortuitous developments well beyond Duterte’s control. Serendipity has played a role.
One factor was the favourable arbitration ruling itself, which is now part of international jurisprudence. Manila is as much duty-bound as China is to comply with the ruling. Aquino’s successful ‘lawfare’ opened a new platform for management of the disputes, one that the two governments should pursue if they are genuinely committed to rule of law.
The second chance event was the election of US President Donald Trump. When Obama stepped down, Manila’s disputes with Beijing already ran the risk of becoming less about the former’s maritime rights and entitlements and more about major power competition. Considering Trump’s yet unclear foreign policy towards China, Beijing has reason to act more thoughtfully in the South China Sea. But because Trump’s commitment to engage in the South China Sea is also unclear, the Philippines has reason to put military cooperation with the US on the backburner and return to a mainly diplomatic track.
The third fortuitous development for Duterte is Xi Jinping’s launch of Belt and Road, a bold campaign for China-led economic, infrastructure and financial connectivity that would link 65 countries from Asia, Europe and Africa. China hopes it will spur global economic growth, stimulate development in its poor frontier provinces and put its excess industrial capacity to profitable use.
The successful implementation of BRI will elevate China further into the ranks of leading economic powers. However, it will need China’s soft diplomacy and a show of internationalist credentials. China will have to downplay nationalist emotions and restrain military adventurism. This could give Duterte breathing space both for repairing relations with China and re-orientating the US alliance towards more convergent objectives.
While national interests may not have altered, these serendipitous changes in circumstances opened the way for mutually-agreeable adjustments in Philippine strategy.
Whether China makes full use of this or not is still in question, but now the opportunity is there.
Aileen S P Baviera is a Professor of China Studies and International Relations at the University of the Philippines. This article is part of a series from East Asia Forum (www.eastasiaforum.org) in the Crawford School of Public Policy at The Australian National University.