Prof. Aileen S.P. Baviera
University of the Philippines
Prof. Aileen Baviera
Philippines-China relations must be at one of its lowest points ever. Even during the height of the Mischief Reef crisis (1995-1997), economic ties were growing and there was minimal effect on warm people-to-people linkages.
Now the value of economic cooperation with China has been questioned due to perceptions that it has been pursued through corrupt practices (e.g. NBN-ZTE, Northrail, Southrail, Transco, etc). People-to-people ties have also been damaged by the Hong Kong hostage crisis and to a lesser extent by Chinese execution of Filipino drug mules. Moreover, the South China Sea territorial dispute remains a flashpoint, with the Chinese side issuing warnings over recent Philippine-sanctioned oil exploration activities by UK-based Forum Energy on the Reed Bank.
At the same time, Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao persists in describing relations between the two countries as “in very good shape”, and his government has extended an invitation to President Noynoy Aquino to visit China. Indeed, relations continue to be viable because of a number of reasons, not least among them a long tradition of friendship and expanding exchanges. Even the growing number of Philippine missions in China (now including Beijing, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Shanghai, Chongqing, Hong Kong and Macau) is an indication of the importance we attach to China and our commitment to developing mutually beneficial relations.
Both sides realize the importance of cooperation, not only for bilateral advantages but also in contributing to regional prosperity as well as peace and stability. This is especially true today, as there is much uncertainty about how the unfolding rise of China and US’ renewed interest in the Asia Pacific will affect the balance of economic and military power – and ultimately the interests of China’s near neighbours – in East Asia.
Adherents of realist thinking in international relations have a popular saying, quoting Thucydides (5th century BC): “the strong do what they can, the weak suffer what they must”.
It is clear where the Philippines stand in this equation. But there are certain leverages even for the weak, which for us include the country’s strategic location (a happy accident of geography which we have yet to make full use of), good human and natural resources, and perhaps even a reservoir of good will towards our people owing to the fact that we try very hard not to make enemies.
But being weak (economically, technologically, militarily) opens up a lot of vulnerabilities which can only be offset by being discerning, wise, imaginative, but above all else – being ever, ever cautious.
This is where good diplomacy can make a world of difference – diplomacy towards friends and allies, and even more so towards neighbours with whom we have sharp disagreements such as territorial disputes. In this context, a visit by President Noynoy Aquino to China requires solid preparation and a crystal clear understanding of how to approach the issues at hand.
Choosing a proper ambassador to China is a very important element of what will be known for years to come as the (younger) Aquino diplomacy. Among the names that have been mentioned in media reports are Edward Go, Alfonso Uy, and Domingo Lee. While these individuals may have many excellent qualities, and while there may be advantages to appointing persons of ethnic Chinese background for certain specific objectives, the Filipino nation at this time needs a very strong representative in Beijing – one who is knowledgeable on outstanding issues and seasoned enough to face the very tough challenges of helping craft a China policy that will actively promote and defend the economic and security interests of the country and contribute to regional stability.
Of special concern is the report that Domingo Lee is being considered, as he was a former Philippine Representative to Taiwan under President Corazon Aquino. (Because of the Philippines’ one-China policy, we call the heads of our missions in Taipei “representatives” rather than “ambassadors”).
Lee, then one of the leaders of the Chinese community, was also reported in a 2002 book by author Jie Chen (Edward Elgar Publishing) to be a member of Standing Committee of the de facto Philippine branch of the Kuomintang Party, the Chinese Communist Party’s arch-rival!
As much of diplomacy is about communication and signalling messages through statements and actions, we can only wonder what signals our government will be sending to China if indeed Domingo Lee were to be appointed.
Appointing a well-qualified ambassador to Beijing, as has already been called for by former Secretary Roberto Romulo, is only one small step in repairing relations with Beijing.
However small, it can be a critical one.
As the head of our mission in Beijing will be working very closely with the DFA home office, a professional career officer of the country’s foreign service, should be a more logical, wiser choice.
Note from Bong Mendoza
Aileen Baviera is professor and former dean of the Asian Center, University of the Philippines. She was immediate past president of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS), and former head of the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies, Foreign Service Institute. She was recently Visiting Fellow, Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence in Policing and Security (based at the Australian National University and Griffith University), and is currently visiting fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.