The Eastern Phantom
Embarking upon a “China-friendly” stance in the disputed South China Sea was a big blunder from the start.
The lessons on sovereignty and economic risks are many, and they should not be disregarded. The Duterte presidency’s pivot to and strategic realignment with China is not only problematic, but also dubious on several grounds.
First, the act of realizing a joint exploration project in the disputed waters under a bilateral agreement with China is politically and legally untenable. One can simply ask the question: Why are we going to have a partnership with China in exploring the waters in our exclusive economic zone (EEZ)?
The Hague ruling was clear; the historical right over the disputed territory cannot rightfully belong to China alone, but also to Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Further, the Philippine Constitution invalidates the conduct of such joint development activities if they involve territories that fall within the Philippines’ EEZ. Politically, a bilateral engagement with China even under a 60-40 sharing agreement spells outright capitulation.
Another tricky situation is the reliance of the Duterte administration on Chinese investments and loans to fund its “Build, build, build” program. Lest we forget, countries in Africa and Asia are now saddled with above-average debts under the Belt and Road Initiative strategy. Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia and a number of other countries have either stopped or retreated from implementing Chinese projects in their territories.
In the Philippines’ case, aside from the help that China has given for Marawi, the personal support of Chinese President Xi Jinping that President Duterte has flaunted, and the three visits between the two countries in the past three years, much of the promised $24 billion in investments and loans have yet to materialize. As Carl Schuster highlighted in his article “South China Sea End Game: Implications and Next Steps”: “After 30 years of broken promises and misleading statements, countries can place little credence on Beijing’s promises.”
A sudden mood swing last August saw Mr. Duterte urging China to “rethink” and “temper its behavior” in the disputed South China Sea. However, the Chinese leader’s visit to Manila this November appeared to have altered Mr. Duterte’s tone once again into a more submissive one.
The seemingly plausible way through this dispute is for the Duterte administration to look seriously into multilateral partnerships with the involved countries and external stakeholders. The President should be conscious that the Philippines is the dialogue coordinator of the Asean-China Summit until 2021.
Asean, for one, could be the channel to forge a corporate partnership with other Southeast Asian countries in managing the South China Sea. In this way, China has to negotiate with many players, and not dominate the bilateral relations it has with the Philippines.
Another step is to renew the Philippines’ relationship with Washington. The United States has as much stake in this relationship as Manila. As Patrick Cronin and Kristine Lee put it in their article “Navigating a new chapter in the US-Philippines’ ‘Long Friendship’”: “The United States must cast its objectives… against the more elemental challenges that stem terrorism, political violence, illegal trafficking, natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises.”
In Singapore, Mr. Duterte declared that he would “at all cost” push for the creation and completion of a Code of Conduct to cool down the combustible situation in the disputed waterway. Through such a document, bilateral and multilateral policies regarding the protection, regulation and definition of transboundary security measures would become more achievable. As such, it would likewise promote a rules-based order.
Beijing has said it’s also keen on seeing the implementation of the code in the next three years. However, the aggressiveness of the Chinese forces in militarizing the waterway, and the projection of its dominance in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership next year, pose serious questions about China’s continuing drive to achieve regional supremacy. That specter is haunting Southeast Asia—the specter of Chinese aggression.
Dindo Manhit is the president of Stratbase ADR Institute.
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