Analysis

PH-China row on hold as Beijing party purge looms

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(Concluded from Wednesday)

Territorial disputes between China and center Asian states boiled over at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit last weekend in Vladivostok, formerly the secretive naval base of the Soviet Russian Pacific Fleet, culminating in President Aquino’s hurried departure on Sunday after failing to hold bilateral talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao on deteriorating Philippine-China relations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin used the summit as a platform to showcase Russia’s main Pacific port city as its window on the Asia-Pacific as it shifts the weight of its strategic economic and political interests from Europe to the Pacific. But the summit unmasked deep divisions over worsening territorial disputes in the region.

In opening the summit on Saturday, Putin—the post-Soviet Russian czar—called on the 20 Apec heads of state to open up trade among their countries and warned against rising protectionism. But the specter of territorial rows reared its head to mar the conference. Hu, speaking at a forum of Apec business leaders, echoed Putin’s theme. “To maintain peace and stability as well as the sound momentum of economic growth in the Asia-Pacific is in the interest of all countries in the region,” Hu said. “It is our shared responsibility.” He went on to call on all to “ensure that tensions did not escalate into serious conflicts.”

Of course, Hu was not calling on China, which is at the center of the disputes that are churning around the islands, shoals and reefs in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) over which China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have overlapping claims. Hu’s speech must have been sickening for Mr. Aquino to hear, which helps explain why in the photo opportunities during the cocktail reception, Mr. Aquino didn’t eagerly appear in the front row of the leaders, making himself more comfortable chatting with friendly colleagues, such as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The summit was held amid heightening disputes among China, Japan and South Korea over territories in the East China Sea, as well as the rival claims of Southeast Asian nations the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, and Malaysia over islands in the South China Sea, all of which is claimed by China. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda shunned bilateral talks with Hu and with South Korea’s Lee Myung-Bak because of Japan’s separate dispute with Seoul. Ahead of the summit, the Philippines and Vietnam had harsh words against China, accusing it of carrying out a campaign of intimidation to enforce its claims on the West Philippine Sea.

In Vladivostok, China not only engaged in double talk; it also actively sought to drive a wedge among the Asean rival claimants. Using divide-and-rule tactics, it played them off against one another. Hu held friendly bilateral talks on the sidelines of the conference with Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang and Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah. Sang told Hu that Hanoi was ready to work with Beijing to push for an early resolution of their disputes through peaceful consultations. While Hu was doing this backdoor lobbying on the Philippines’ allies in Asean, he pointedly kept the Filipino delegation in suspense until the last hour on the arrangements of the bilateral meeting with Mr. Aquino, thus rubbing salt on wounds.

The President had told his aides that the meeting with Hu was his top priority, not using the summit as an opportunity to attract investments into the Philippines. He was at the wrong place. Putin has said that the opening of the new suspension bridge in Vladivostok across the Golden Horn to rival San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and the modernizing of the port city to the tune of $21 billion were intended to draw investments into Russia’s far eastern region.

The Department of Foreign Affairs has dismissed the fiasco as “a scheduling challenge, but a challenge that turned out to be a bigger challenge than we anticipated.” Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario said the President was disappointed. “I think that a lot could have been achieved in terms of a meeting between the leaders, for them to be able to  share various points of view, and I think that this is not only a downside for the Philippines but also for China. I think this is obviously a missed opportunity,” Del Rosario said.

At a press briefing before flying to Vladivostok, the President said he planned to conduct “a frank exchange of thought” with Hu in order “to divorce the talks from diplomatic niceties.” The President last met Hu during his state visit to China in August 2011. Since then, relations between the two countries have been going downhill.

Experienced visitors to China, including national delegations invited by Beijing, have learned the lesson that the inscrutable Chinese keep their guests guessing up to the last minute whether they would ever meet with leaders (or with what leaders in the hierarchy) at the Palace of the People in the Forbidden City.

Now the outcome of the standoff over the Spratlys and Scarborough Shoal is even more uncertain than four months ago, even as Chinese maritime vessels have made their presence permanent at the rock formations claimed by the Philippines as part of its exclusive economic zone. What’s certain is that Mr. Aquino will never have another chance to meet Hu again in a face-to-face diplomatic encounter.

China is undergoing a top leadership shakeup in the Communist Party Congress within two months. Hu is expected to step down next month. His vice president, Xi Jinping, has been out of sight for more than a week amid rumors of a power struggle in the Politburo.

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