Coming to power just two weeks after an arbitral tribunal ruled over the South China Sea, the enigmatic Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was credited with easing tensions amid burning passions at the time. Since then, his administration has used a mix of engagement and pushback in its relations with China – strengthening economic ties, handling maritime incidents and defending the country’s position in choppy waters. Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s April 3 visit and meeting with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in Tunxi, Anhui, and the April 8 telesummit between senior leaders Duterte and Xi Jinping were l opportunity to take stock of bilateral relations over the past six years. . With elections to be held on May 9 and presidential aspirants hanging over the waterfront and relations with China, several lessons can be learned.
Isolate disputes from overall relationships
First, the wisdom to manage disputes in such a way that they do not affect overall relationships. In reference to the unsolvable shit, the late Philippine Ambassador to China, Jose Santiago Sta. Romana said that “it is important to manage the problems well and to prevent them from becoming a crisis that can lead to a confrontation”. His counterpart, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian, argued that it is normal for neighbors “to have differences as neighbours”, saying “what matters is how we treat them properly “. Chairman of the National People’s Congress Foreign Affairs Committee Fu Ying said that “whenever the two sides can handle and manage differences properly, cooperation will continue uninterrupted.” However, the former top Chinese envoy to the Southeast Asian country also warned that “when disputes are allowed to escalate or even spiral out of control, overall bilateral relations will suffer.” She identified the South China Sea as the most difficult debacle, saying “it’s sensitive and complicated, and there’s no easy way out.” Former Philippine President and former Speaker of the House of Congress Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo stressed that the relationship should not be one-dimensional, centered only on the territorial dispute, but rather multifaceted.
There is no doubt that the disputes in the South China Sea will continue to challenge the ties between the claimants and the major naval powers. Rising means of dissent, notably China, and a growing rivalry between the United States and China are raising the stakes for peacekeeping in the simmering hot spot. The 2016 arbitration award helped resolve this intractable problem, but Beijing’s opposition to it and its non-binding nature on third parties present serious obstacles.
Focus on dispute management and practical cooperation
The dilemma of the 2016 ruling may have prompted Duterte to place more emphasis on dispute management and functional cooperation. That said, he continues to assert the arbitration award in national and international forums and welcomes the growing number of countries endorsing and supporting the landmark judgment.
This second lesson played into the establishment of a bilateral consultation mechanism (BCM) in 2016 to manage the maritime conflict. Six meetings have been convened under this platform, the most recent of which was held virtually in May 2021. Coastguard diplomacy has also received a big boost. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) establishing a Joint Coastguard Committee was signed in 2016. The third meeting of this committee was hosted by Manila in January 2020 and was marked by the first ever official ship visit Chinese coast guard in the country. . As these frontline maritime law enforcement agencies modernize and their interface with each other and with fishers from various requesting states increases, the establishment of direct line communications and the establishment of a minimum of professional or even personal relationships can be useful in preventing crises. In 2018, the two sides also signed a memorandum of understanding on oil and gas cooperation, providing a basis for pursuing a joint offshore energy resource venture. The first meeting of the Intergovernmental Joint Steering Committee on Oil and Gas Development took place in Beijing in October 2019. However, the momentum of these mechanisms ran into a snag when the pandemic made intimate discussions difficult in nobody.
Philippine presidential candidates have expressed openness to the idea of joint development with various caveats. The front-runner, former Sen. Ferdinand Marcos Jr., seen as likely to support Duterte’s China policy, prefers direct negotiations over the maritime powder keg, a move conducive to the joint venture. On the other hand, Vice President Maria Leonor Robredo has based any discussion of the semi-enclosed sea on China’s recognition of the court’s decision, a problematic start to an agreement. Manila Mayor Francisco Domagoso is receptive to the idea, saying he will use the proceeds to reduce electricity costs to make the country more competitive and fund modernization of the navy and coastguard. Joint development also suits Senator Panfilo Lacson as long as he respects the constitutional rule of 60-40 equity in favor of the country. Senator Emmanuel Pacquiao is also in favor of the concept to avoid tensions. The high price of imported oil due to the war in Ukraine and the growing demand for energy may give a sense of urgency to speed up the talks.
Two related developments further reinforce Manila’s commitment to practical cooperation in disputed maritime spaces and to resolving disputes with neighbors through dialogue. Last November, the Philippines and Vietnam resumed the Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea (JOMSRE). This confidence-building measure of science diplomacy helps bring together key players – marine scientists and fisheries experts. Its first iteration ran from 1994 to 2007 as a bilateral initiative and was open to other participants from Southeast Asia and China. Therefore, the prospect of JOMSRE 2.0 forming the core of a wider engagement between coastal states is there. Additionally, last November, the Philippines and Indonesia began preparatory talks to delimit their continental shelves in the adjacent Sulu-Sulawesi seas, with a second meeting taking place last month. These meetings build on the successful delineation of their overlapping exclusive economic zones in the region – a treaty that entered into force in 2019 and has been in the works for 20 years. The conclusion of this maritime delimitation, the first for the Philippines, shows that Manila is willing and able to sit down with its neighbors to resolve issues peacefully.
In addition, as the ASEAN-China National Coordinator from 2018 to 2021, Manila played a vital role in preparing the first draft single negotiating text of the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea in 2019. Outlining behaviors, the COC, despite its limitations, can encourage applicants and even third parties to observe basic decorum to help avoid untoward incidents. Three months after handing over its coordinating role to Myanmar last August, the second reading of the text has taken place.
Gratitude to a proven partner, advice to a successor
During the meeting in early April between ministers Wang and Locsin, the latter’s seventh trip to China, the head of the Philippine diplomacy described relations as “becoming more and more mature, with bilateral pragmatic cooperation achieving historic results and bringing lasting benefits to both parties”. Over the past six years, China has become the country’s largest trading partner and export market, second largest investor, fastest growing tourism market and booming infrastructure builder. In addition, China has also funded the construction of drug rehabilitation centers to support the country’s war on illegal drugs and has been an indispensable partner in the fight against Covid-19. Beijing was a pioneer in donating masks and other essential medical supplies and the first to donate and supply Covid-19 vaccines to the country. These economic and humanitarian contributions helped justify Duterte’s approach. Despite the persistence of incidents at sea and an economy battered by the health crisis over the past two years, his popularity rating remains high one month before the election, a unique phenomenon in Philippine politics.
Regardless of the outcome of the May 9 election, the South China Sea will continue to plague bilateral relations. But it is not the differences themselves, but their place in the bigger picture that matters and determines the course of relations. Duterte and Xi “recognized that while differences existed, both sides remained committed to expanding the space for positive engagements that reflected the dynamic and multidimensional relationship of the Philippines and China.” Wang and Locsin agreed, stressing “that maritime issues should occupy an appropriate place in bilateral relations”. From this perspective, Duterte’s exit call with Xi, favored to secure a third term at the upcoming 20th Chinese Communist Party Congress later this year, is not just a message of appreciation to a partner. reliable. This is also advice to his new predecessor.
This article was published by China-US Focus