“The changing triangular relations between the Philippines, the United States and the People’s Republic China: From Obama, Aquino, and Xi and beyond”
Amado M. Mendoza, Jr. and Richard Javad Heydarian
None illustrates the abject poverty of the Philippine government’s current position vis-à-vis China that the just concluded seventh bilateral strategic and economic dialogue between China and the United States last June. A glaring contrast is offered by a more powerful U.S. talking with China while the weakest state, the Philippines, spurns talking with a powerful neighbor. It appears that the smallest power in this triangle has put all its eggs in two baskets: the ITLOS arbitration case and an expanding security relationship with its American ally (as well as Japan). It remains to be seen how the Benigno Aquino III administration will respond to the latest entreaty from the Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines that the former drop its ITLOS case and resume the bilateral dialogue between the two states.
Even the bitterest adversaries can and should talk, and the measure of good leadership is to combine deterrence with smart engagement. After all, diplomacy is about avoiding conflict, resolving disputes, and outsmarting adversaries through means than raw brinkmanship. We can learn from our neighbors. The Philippines is not the only country which has territorial disputes with China. If anything, Tokyo and Hanoi have been locked in a similar, if not fiercer, territorial show down with Beijing. Since 2010, Japan has had to resist the ever-growing deployment of Chinese para-military patrols and jet fighters close to the shores of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. Armed hostilities loomed possible. Hawks in Beijing have utilized the disputes to fan the flames of anti-Japanese sentiment, which led to violent protests in China against Japanese interests and products in 2012.
Pre-modern Vietnam had waged a millennium-old war of anti-colonial resistance against its powerful northern neighbor. Vietnam’s very national identity has been shaped by what it sees as a struggle for independence against China. Unlike Japan and the Philippines, Vietnam has had to contend with both continental as well as maritime disputes with China. In 1974, China effectively evicted (South) Vietnam from the Paracels in the South China Sea and mounted a full-scale invasion of Vietnam in 1979. In 1988, Vietnam faced another bloody skirmish with China over disputed islands in the Spratlys. In mid-2014, Vietnam and China relations suffered a huge setback after Beijing deployed a giant oil rig into Vietnamese-claimed waters.
However, both Japan and Vietnam have maintained robust diplomatic channels with China, while rapidly developing their deterrence capabilities. Both Tokyo and Hanoi have tried (with considerable success) to maintain large-scale economic ties with China, defend their territorial integrity, and avoid outright conflict. They have accomplished this difficult balancing act by combining pro-active engagement with a determined push to enhance their deterrence capabilities. Leaders in Japan and Vietnam have tried to ensure territorial disputes with China do not define their overall relationship with Asia’s new superpower. In economic terms, China is a leading trading partner and source of investments for Vietnam . With respect to Japan, China is a critical investment and consumer market as well as a key source of rare earth elements.
Pursuing (and maintaining) engagement with China has always risked domestic political backlash for rivals, especially among more hawkish circles, which view China as a monolithic expansionist power. In 2014, as the dispute with China entered a dangerous stage, Japan’s nationalist leader, Shinzo Abe, took a huge gamble when he instructed his diplomats to open communication channels with China, culminating in a formal dialogue between Abe and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on the sidelines of the APEC Summit in Beijing. Abe’s meeting with Xi ended up in one of the world’s most awkward handshakes, but it did not take long before Japan and China resumed high-level talks among their foreign and defense ministries, and began exploring various confidence-building measures to avoid accidental clashes in the high seas.
At the height of their disputes in the South China Sea last year, Vietnam hosted China’s leading foreign policy advisor, Yang Jiechi, and dispatched a top official, Le Hong Anh, to Beijing to de-escalate tensions. Soon, the two countries signed their third hotline, between their defense ministries, while the country’s party chief, Nguyen Phu Troung, made a high-profile visit to Beijing in mid-2015. China not only withdrew the oil rig from Vietnamese waters; it also did not dispatch additional ones. In exchange, Vietnam is said to have temporarily shelved the option of taking the dispute to an international court. All the while, Vietnam as well as Japan have augmented their presence close to disputed features, fortified their position on the ground, and have embarked on a long-term initiative to enhance their defensive capabilities.
The Philippines can draw crucial lessons from its neighbors. First and foremost, it has to acknowledge the importance of maintaining high-level communication channels with Beijing. So far, Aquino and Xi are yet to hold a single formal summit. For what is publicly known, Manila has not established a single hotline with China to prevent accidental clashes in the high seas and make sure they do not escalate into a full-scale conflict.
It is important to make sure Manila’s bilateral relations with China are not primarily defined by their conflicts but rather by their long-term shared interests. Finally, the Philippines must also draw lessons from poorer neighbors such as Vietnam, which, instead of relying on external powers, are investing in their own air, naval, and coast guard capabilities in order to push back against Chinese assertiveness.
With Xi Jinping expected to visit Manila for the APEC summit later this year, there is a crucial opportunity to kick start a more proactive engagement with Beijing, keeping in mind the importance of diplomacy not only to mobilize friends but also outsmart or neutralize rivals. Ultimately, however, as the more powerful party Beijing bears the greater responsibility for reaching out to its much-weaker and vulnerable neighbor. This is apparently what the Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua has done recently, with the assurance that the Philippines is not in any way excluded from the Chinese-sponsored Maritime Silk Road (Remo 2015). To encourage good will, China should offer greater economic incentives without any geopolitical preconditions. For starters, China can also boost confidence-building efforts by permanently postponing the imposition of any Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea. It could also raise hopes for greater cooperation by ending its unilateral, coercive occupation of the Scarborough Shoal, ending para-military patrols close to Philippine- controlled features in the area, agreeing to a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea, and start negotiating mutually-satisfying joint development schemes with its neighbors. More than anyone else, the ball is in China’s court, but it is also necessary for the Philippines to re-calibrate its diplomatic posturing, driven by more reason than emotions or ideological preferences.
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 Li (2014) compares China-Vietnam and China-Philippine relations and concludes that from a conflict management perspective, China and Vietnam have sought to manage their border disputes through the establishment and development of a system of talks. This approach has resulted in both formal settlement of land border and Gulf of Tonkin disputes and in better management of disputes in the South China Sea. In contrast, between China and the Philippines, attempts were made to establish mechanisms for conflict management in the 1900s and 2000s but they have not been sustained, and in recent years the absence of such mechanisms have led to frosty relations.