The relationship between the Philippines and the Asian Dragon, China, has taken a much different turn under the administration of President Duterte, in contrast to the diplomatic path his Palace predecessor had followed.
Jose Santiago Santa Romana, Philippine ambassador to China, emphasized that the Duterte administration has changed the narrative as far as the relations between Beijing and Manila are concerned.
Before June 2016, under former President Benigno S. Aquino III, Santa Romana said the prevailing narrative was both adversarial and confrontational. But not today.
“Right now, we are pursuing a nonconfrontational and nonadversarial approach based largely on an independent foreign policy. I think this is one of the reasons in the breakthrough in Philippine-China relations,” Santa Romana said in his keynote speech during the 30th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Association of Chinese Studies (PACS) at the Ortigas Center in Pasig City.
Santa Romana revealed that the Chinese media once had this perception that the Philippines wasn’t acting independently on its foreign-policy initiatives and interest, but moving according to the intent of another world superpower. The belief of the Chinese media, he said, was that the Philippine foreign policy was anchored on containment of Chinese influence, especially in the Asia-Pacific region.
Pursuing an independent foreign policy is not a new road map for the Philippines. The move to form an independent foreign policy gained ground under the initiative of progressive Filipinos, led by the great nationalist Claro M. Recto in the 1950s.
“Recto’s nationalist, anti-imperialist campaign was launched during a most difficult period in Philippine history, a time when Cold War psychosis gripped the country, or at least its ruling elements,” Prof. Renato Constantino explained in his essay “Unity for Survival.”
The China pivot
When Duterte started to hurl invectives against former US President Barack Obama one after the other, Beijing was convinced that the Philippines under the present administration has taken a new perspective on China, and is not acting now based on the dictates of another power—obviously referring to Washington.
“The new perception was that the Philippines is no longer a part of a coalition against China, but [one that is] willing to be friendly with China,” Santa Romana, a former student leader from the De La Salle University during the turbulent First Quarter Storm in the late 1960s to the early 1970s, said.
He added the ties between the two countries were enhanced when Duterte visited China for the first time in October 2016. He again visited Beijing in May to attend the Belt and Road Initiative Summit. The two-day BRI event highlighted Chinese Premiere Xi Jinping’s major foreign-policy project that aims to revive the ancient Silk Road trading route through the building of infrastructure across Asia, Europe and Africa. Skeptics believe this is Beijing’s bid to boost its clout, both in trade and geopolitics. China, for its part, has been insisting that its objectives under the Silk Road initiative are for the benefit of the world.
By pivoting to China, Manila was given some goodwill, such as the recovery of the fishing access to the Scarborough Shoal. Furthermore, the Philippines was given access to several official development assistance funding for several local infrastructure projects.
Santa Romana said every administration has its own version of realpolitik, that every administration will take a different approach to issues, such as the territorial dispute with China. During the Aquino administration, the government opted for the legal and confrontational approach.
In 2016 the United Nations Arbitral Tribunal in The Hague, the Netherlands, ruled that the Philippines has the exclusive sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (in the South China Sea), and that China’s “nine-dash line” is invalid.
However, China did not accept the ruling, and insisted it is still serious in solving the territorial problems with its neighbors.
Santa Romana said the approach in settling territorial disputes should be multidisciplinary. But this does not mean the country has to give up on international law, “but rather combine it with other approaches.”
“You have to combine law and diplomacy. The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy-Tufts University knows the importance of merging these two disciplines in settling disputes,” Santa Romana added.
As far as the Chinese are concerned, the bilateral approach is the best way to settle disputes. Through this, the border issues between China and Vietnam and the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were resolved. “Successful negotiations with China were based on bilateral approach with dialogues,” Santa Romana said.
The collapse of the USSR, he noted, was a big factor in Vietnam’s shift in its China policy. It took China two decades of negotiation to finally resolve issues and demarcate the lines of their borders.
Santa Romana recalled that there was a standstill before, as Chairman Mao Ze Dong and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev took a hard-line stance against each other. The winds of change came when Mao died and Mikhail Gorbachev took over the leadership in Moscow.
“Right now, it is through the bilateral approach that they will discuss the disputes,” he said. “Our experiences so far have shown discussions are better rather than an adversarial approach.”
Santa Romana added the key component is not to put the dispute on top of the negotiating table and not see it as an obstacle in pushing for a stable relationship.
The government right now has managed to ease up the tension. Nevertheless, Santa Romana admitted, this process is not a one-shot deal. “It will take one more administration to solve the underlying issues.”