Posts Tagged ‘Philippine-China relations’


It is true that relations between the Philippines (PH) and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are currently frosty, nay, hostile and troubled even.  But that has not always been the case. And need not be the case since the current state of affairs is not beneficial to both.  It is in fact detrimental to both states’ interests; and therefore must be changed, for the better.

Chinese female soldiers

The truth of the matter is that relations between the two countries (unequal in size, assets, power and influence) had not been quite straightforward since the PRC’s creation in October 1949.  The appropriate metaphor is that of a roller-coaster (with the characteristic ups-and-downs).  Furthermore, it would be very difficult to understand the bilateral Philippine-Chinese relations without situating it within a trilateral (or triangular) perspective—that is relations between the United States, the Philippines, and China.

However, as the relations between the Philippines and China changed over the years, it is not always the case that the twists and turns benefited the Philippines in a very clear manner. Thus a change in policy that will be mutually beneficial to both the Philippines and China (and even the United States) is not only possible.  It is desirable.

While the rather unfriendly (hostile, in fact) relations between the two during the 1950s up to the early 1970s was understandable (given the Cold War context), warm relations during the Ferdinand E. Marcos administration (1965-1986) brought unmistakable gains both to the Philippines and China.

mao-imelda-marcos

The Philippines did not in fact go out on a limb since the United States, the so-called leader of the Free World during the Cold War, already reached out first to Mao Ze-dong, China’s supreme leader, to forge an alliance versus the Soviet Union (a strategic development made possible by the acrimonious Sino-Soviet split in the 1960s).  In an astute move, Marcos leveraged the diplomatic opening to get China’s nod to stop supporting the Maoist insurgency (carried out by the Communist Party of the Philippines-led New People’s Army) in the Philippines.

NPA guerillas

On the other hand, China likewise benefited tremendously from this anti-Soviet American initiative since it regained its seat in the powerful United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and the one-China policy was adopted by most UN members leading to Taiwan’s loss of UN stature.  China’s good fortune simply demonstrates anew the timeless wisdom of real-politik: that is, “the enemy of your principal enemy is a friend, albeit tactical”.

However, President Marcos’ initiatives towards China was reversed by President Corazon C. Aquino (1986-1992) who tried to extend the US military bases’ stay in the country.  Her successor, President Fidel V. Ramos (1992-1998) looked east (though to Taiwan[1] and South Korea[2]) when the US-Philippine ties turned frosty after the military bases’ exit in 1991.  However, as China started asserting its sovereignty in the South China Sea (SCS) in the mid-1990s, the Philippines renewed its relations with the US through the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) during President Erap Estrada’s short-lived administration (1998-2001).

The relationship took a different, friendlier turn during Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s presidency (2001-2010) as China undertook its so-called ‘charm offensive’.  Concretely, this meant loans, investments, and increased trade and tourist traffic from China to the Philippines.

It was also during this time that a trilateral joint venture (between China, Vietnam, and the Philippines) to conduct a seismic survey of possible offshore oil and natural gas deposits in the SCS was formed.  This joint venture involving three claimant states was made possible by hewing to the late Deng Xiao-ping’s formula of “joint-use-despite-ownership-questions”. However, the relationship between the two countries was soured by the ZTE national broad-band network scandal. It was quite clear that President Arroyo and her conferees, relatives and friends wanted to personally profit from the improvement of the bilateral relationship.  As a result, the ZTE contract and the joint seismic survey were either cancelled and/or allowed to expire as President Arroyo attended to her own political survival in the Philippines.

zte-logo-002

Relations went downhill since then as China tried to improve its position in the SCS as well to Balkanize the ASEAN regional organization through a judicious carrots-and-sticks strategy.  In fact, Cambodia managed to do what was never done before in ASEAN’s here-to-fore long existence—prevent the issuance of a Summit statement in 2012.

While the Philippines is supposedly praised by the international community for standing up to a more powerful China, while it entered into an Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA)  with long-time ally with the United States in mid-July 2014, it currently is in a disadvantageous position vis-à-vis its neighbor.  This is true even if friends located farther away (aside from the US, Japan, South Korea and Australia) are pledging their support; these ‘protestations’ of help has not changed China’s policy.

Now, things have gone worse as a new Cold War is afoot in the western Pacific Rim, a development that bodes ill for East Asia’s economic health.  In due course, China’s activism had caused the emergence of a firm anti-China regional alliance composed of the United States, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

In this regard, however, the Philippines is not solidly joined by its co-member states in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Even if Thailand is a treaty ally of the US, it has decided that it is not to its national interest to range itself firmly against China.  Malaysia cannot be expected to join the Philippines firmly since it is also an SCS claimant.  The same is true with Vietnam who is not only also a claimant but shares land borders with China.  It must be recalled that China invaded Vietnam in force in 1979 during what was then called the Third Indochina War.

The same circumspection is also exhibited by the other poorer mainland states such as Myanmar, Laos, and Cambodia—states which had received great largesse from China’s patronage.  The newest state in Southeast Asia—Timor Leste (not yet an ASEAN member) is in the same situation.  After the fall of Suharto, Indonesia has become inward-looking as she tries to consolidate a new democracy.  Singapore can be likened to a businessman and is naturally conservative, more so in its foreign policy and relations.

In short, the Philippines really stands alone vis-a-vis China, notwithstanding the case it filed before the ITLOS (International Tribunal of the Law of the Sea).

The US may be an ally but she is also mired elsewhere—in the fight against ISIS (aka ISIL and IS), Ukraine, Iraq, Syria, and in many other places—and thus may not be able to truly assist the Philippines well even if it wants to.  It is a more a question of capacity falling short of will—a matter of “imperial over-stretch”—that the British historian Paul Kennedy warned about in the late 1980s.[3]  The US is scrambling to pivot or rebalance its forces from the Atlantic and other theaters (of operation) to the Asia Pacific region to supposedly maintain freedom of navigation in international waters and airspace (but actually to contain a rising China, in our opinion).  The US is also encouraging its Northeast Asian allies in the region to help it encircle China—a new encirclement reminiscent of the overall containment strategy directed against the USSR and its Warsaw Pact allies during the Cold War.

Senkaku-Diaoyu-Tiaoyu-Islands

Given its own territorial disputes with China, Japan (especially under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe) has not only pushed back in the Yellow Sea (in the context of the Chinese-Japanese territorial dispute over the so-called Senkaku or Diaoyu islands).  Tokyo has also offered material assistance to embroiled countries in Southeast Asia.[4]  South Korea meanwhile clinched a deal to supply a squadron of advanced FA-50 multi-role jets to the Philippines with the first delivery of 2 planes expected in December 2015.[5]

Indeed, the strategic environment in East Asia is unfolding, albeit in a rapid fashion, notwithstanding the realization on the part of all actors that the adverse turn may not be aligned with their mutual and strategic benefit and interests.

An appropriate (even if old) theory that could help better understand the new East Asian strategic environment exists.  The Power Transition theory is a theory about the cyclical nature of war, in relation to power (of states) in international relations.   Created by A.F.K. (Abramo Fimo Kenneth) Organski, and originally published in his textbook, World Politics (1958), contemporary power transition theory describes international politics as a hierarchy, with different degrees of power between states. The objective of the theory is to investigate the cyclic condition of wars, and how transition of power in terms of machtpolitik affect the occurrence of these wars.

Organski World Politics

The principal predictive power of the theory is in the likelihood of war and the stability of alliances.  War is most likely, of longest duration and greatest magnitude, when a challenger (a revisionist power; one of the great powers) to the dominant power (the global hegemon) enters into approximate parity with the dominant state and is dissatisfied with the existing system. Similarly, alliances are most stable when the parties to the alliance are satisfied with the system structure. This leads to the view that when the balance of power is unstable (i.e. one or two nations have taken a dominant role in geopolitics), the likelihood of war is greater.

According to Organski:

An even distribution of political, economic, and military capabilities between contending groups of states is likely to increase the probability of war; peace is preserved best when there is an imbalance of national capabilities between disadvantaged and advantaged nations; the aggressor will come from a small group of dissatisfied strong countries; and it is the weaker, rather than the stronger; power that is most likely to be the aggressor.

Using Organski’s theory, China can be characterized as a ‘revisionist’ power dissatisfied with the existing balance of forces in the world as well as in Asia.  Meanwhile, the United States is a ‘status quo’ power (or a standpatter) working to preserve its hegemony.  It is joined by other status quo powers like Japan, South Korea, and Australia. Since it does not share US interests and preferences, the Russian Federation under President Vladimir Putin is China’s natural ally.[6]  The same is true with Pyongyang since Seoul is on the opposing side.  India is in a predicament since it shares a land border with China and fought a brief border war with the latter in the 1960s.  Geopolitical realities may force India to either align with China or opt for neutrality in the conflict.

Thus, a new cold war is afoot in East Asia (or the eastern Pacific rim) involving great powers (both status quo and revisionists) plus their allies.

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[1] Taiwan responded to its diplomatic isolation with a ‘carrot-diplomacy’ on its own: ensuring the flow of loans, direct investments, and ODA to friendly countries who are willing to accept the diplomatic fiction called TECO, or Taiwan Economic Cooperation Office, in their respective capitals, which in truth are the equivalent of embassies of duly-recognized states.  Taiwan was able to dispense carrots around the world (the Philippines included) given its economic prosperity and hefty international reserves.  In fact, China’s new economic policy helped by stimulating cross-Strait economic and socio-cultural relations between Beijing and Taipei in a parallel of South Korea’s ‘sunshine policy’ vis-à-vis North Korea.

[2] South Korea joined the ranks of the advanced industrial economies grouped in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in the mid-1990s even before she was temporarily convulsed by the shocks generated by the so-called Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s.  The setback in Seoul proved to be short-lived as economic growth was restored in the 2000s albeit on a different basis compared to the growth sparked by the state-capitalist regime initiated by South Korean leader Park Chung-hee in the 1970s and 1980s.

[3] Paul Kennedy. 1987. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Random House/Vintage Books.

[4] In mid-2013, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe promised to supply ‘grey’ (combat) patrol vessels to the Philippines during a state visit. Please see http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/05/30/shinzo-abe-china-disputes_n_5418205.html and http://www.philstar.com/headlines/2013/07/26/1014401/japan-pm-manila-state-visit.

[5] Please see http://www.rappler.com/nation/77956-aquino-philippines-fighter-jets.

[6]  Russia had recently agreed to sell its most advanced S-400 missile systems to China.  Please see   <http://www.themoscowtimes.com/business/article/china-and-russia-sign-contract-for-s-400-missile-systems/519010.html&gt;.


Unfortunately, not in a teapot.

It appeared that Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Senator Antonio Trillanes IV worked famously well with each other especially during the impeachment proceedings against Supreme Court Chief Justice Renato C. Corona earlier this year.    In the afternoon of September 19, however, they turn their big guns on each other.

Enrile-Trillanes face-off at the Senate

Prior to this exchange, the grapevine was rife with talk of a coup against Enrile’s leadership in the Senate.  The complaint against Enrile?  Tightfistedness over budget releases.

Former President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo and her son, Dato, who are both members of the House of Representatives

Trillanes fired the first shot accusing Enrile of railroading a bill that will create a new province–Nueva Camarines–to favor Rep. Dato Arroyo, a son of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.  Trillanes accused Enrile of being GMA’s lackey.  Enrile was accused of being eager to serve GMA’s preferences and at the same sitting of bills he did not favor such as the controversial Reproductive Health bill.  Trillanes capped his speech by saying that he lost confidence in Enrile’s leadership and that he was leaving the Senate majority.

In a skillful re-framing (this point I owe to my younger colleague at the UP Department of Political Science, Jalton Taguibao) of the debate, Enrile cast doubts on the “quiet, secret and clandestine” meetings Trillanes had with Chinese officials regarding the country’s territorial disputes with China.

Parrying Trillanes’ answer that he was authorized by President Noynoy to act as back-channel negotiator, Enrile insisted that Trillanes should have sought his permission as Senate chief to leave the country and should have submitted proper reports to the Senate.

Ambassador Sonia Brady

Further on, Enrile insinuated that a study of the notes made by former Ambassador Sonia Brady, who met with Trillanes on August 17, would show that the senator was “protecting” the Chinese.  This is obviously convenient wording as Enrile could not yet brand Trillanes a traitor.  That will happen days after when both senators continued their word war.

The attack continued.  Enrile fired from another weapon and asked Trillanes: are you against me now because I disapproved your budget request for your oversight committee?  The latter can only say that was not the case.

So the possible reason came from Enrile himself.  The question: why did Enrile disapprove Trillanes’ budget request?

When Enrile started to read further from the Brady notes, Trillanes countered that the reading was irrelevant to the original matter of creating the new province of Nueva Camarines and walked out.  The ever-ready Enrile quipped: “He’s a coward; he cannot take the heat.”

It is desirable that domestic differences be transcended in relation to the conduct of a country’s foreign policy.  However, professors of international relations know that there is no great wall between domestic and international politics.

I am offering this reconstruction of the events based solely on open sources.  A reconstruction is a reading, my reading of what happened.  I could be right, I could be wrong.  It is up to the reader to judge the plausibility of this reconstruction.

Executive Secretary Pacquito Ochoa Jr.

Trillanes was tasked by President Noynoy Aquino through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa to do some back-channeling with the China with respect to the Scarborough Shoal issue.  With respect to the Enrile-Trillanes dispute, it does not matter if President Aquino asked Trillanes first or if Trillanes volunteered himself.  At the end of the day, the ultimate responsibility is with President Aquino.  I do no think Trillanes went to China on his own.

President Noynoy Aquino

What is the domestic political angle here?  Trillanes is due for re-election in the May 2013.  Some pogi (brownie) points will not hurt his re-election bid.  If he can claim some success in resolving the dispute with China, then his political stock gets boosted.  Why would President Noynoy entrust Trillanes, who is obviously an amateur on foreign policy notwithstanding his claimed contacts in China, with such task?  Given the small number of senators, a senator is a member of almost all standing committees of the Senate.  Logically, a senator cannot be an expert of the subject matter of all these committees.  He may be considered an expert on the matters covered by the committee(s) he chairs.  Trillanes chairs three committees–civil service and government reorganization, amateur sports competitiveness, and the oversight committee on government procurement.  He is a member of the foreign relations and national defense and security committees.

The reason for the assignment?  Simple.  Trillanes is slated to join the administration’s senatorial slate for May 2013.

Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario

Trillanes’ appointment as back-channel negotiator to China apparently irked Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario especially since the former reportedly bad-mouthed him in Trillanes’ talk with our ambassador to China Sonia Brady.  He complains about Trillanes’ role in a Philippine Daily Inquirer headline article published on September 19, 2012.  In the same article, Trillanes typically hit back (remember his dressing down of Secretary Angelo Reyes during a Senate hearing on corruption within the military) saying if del Rosario did his work right, there would not be a need for a back-door negotiator.

Secretary Angelo Reyes in a Senate hearing on corruption
within the Philippine military

Ambassador Brady took notes of her conversation with Trillanes notwithstanding the latter’s instruction against taking notes.  The soon-to-be called Brady notes will find their way to Enrile.  No need to ‘agonize’ about the “how” here since del Rosario is Brady’s boss.

Enrile is not the old wily fox for nothing; he has absolutely so much experience to get caught with his pants down.  So when Trillanes fires his Nueva Camarines broadside, Enrile refused to be pinned down defensively.  He counter attacked using the Brady notes; he even called Trillanes a fifth-columnist, an elegant euphemism for traitor.  Even if the China issue was irrelevant, Enrile not only parried Trillanes’ thrust.  The younger senator was now put on the defensive.

Juan ‘Jackie’ Enrile Jr.

One last point.  Enrile is not running for re-election in 2013 and will retire from politics next year.  However, his son, Juan ‘Jackie’ Enrile, Jr. is aspiring to be senator in May 2013.  Since Enrile pere is one of the three leaders (with Vice President Jejomar Binay and former President Joseph Estrada) of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), Enrile fils will join the UNA slate.  Under the country’s electoral system, only the 12 candidates receiving the highest number of votes will be declared as senators.  Under this system, all candidates are competing with each other.  If Trillanes joins the administration slate, he will be competing not only with UNA candidates but with administration slate-mates.  The same is true with Jackie Enrile.

One can say that the Trillanes-Enrile pere tussle is the opening salvo of the 2013 senatorial election campaign.