BEIJING—In dealing with China particularly on territorial disputes, the Philippines’ foreign policy makers still live in the Cold War era. The Aquino administration lacks strategic thinkers and talks through variant voices, with its “backdoor diplomacy” compromised by leaks and acrimonious public debates. Viewing China as a “communist state” (it’s a “socialist market economy,” Beijing officials say) and shackling Philippine diplomacy to the onerous “special ties” with the United States, with a strong reliance on defense assistance, betrays a Cold War mindset.
Philippine relations with China are impaired by a lack of perception and, hence, an informed analysis of that country’s strategic goals domestically, regionally, and internationally. Lacking, too, is an appraisal of the link between the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (SCS) or West Philippine Sea (WPS) and China’s security imperatives.
A look at the policy pronouncements and thoughts of Beijing’s leaders as well as the perspectives of various think tanks in China should shed some light.
China’s core agenda for the past 30 years is economic reform and modernization. Its development can happen only under a global environment of peace. Today, it is the world’s second largest economy with a more than 20 percent share of the global economy. Yet its leaders describe China as a “developing country” and still in the first stage of socialism.
Wang Yang, member of the Central Committee and Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC), reiterated such a policy on Sept. 21. He said that development was possible “by safeguarding world peace,” and that China was promoting “sustainable peace for sustainable development.” But he warned that the world had become more complex given the global financial crisis, “terrorism,” territorial disputes particularly in East Asia, and other problems.
In this regard, China today is obsessed with strengthening what Wu Shumin, director of the Center for International Exchanges, calls its “weak economic foundation.” To preempt social implosion, it is addressing a growing social divide through equal income distribution and, says Prof. Zhao Zhikui of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, building a “harmonious society.”
Global stability and increased economic cooperation hold the external key to China’s meeting a 2020 target of substantially addressing its social problems and meeting a 2050 goal of a “medium-developed country.” Noting its shrinking exports in America and Europe, China is now prioritizing trade and economic cooperation in Asia, particularly Southeast Asia. With the latter region, it is pushing a “win-win” economic partnership by building or expanding special economic zones, trade complexes, industrial and IT parks, as well as port, expressway, and railway connectivity in its southern regions including Nanning, Shenzhen, China South City, and other areas. Recently, it forged long-term commercial, industrial, ICT, and agri-industry, science and technology agreements with Burma (Myanmar), Laos, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Timor Leste, and Thailand. (In 2011, trade between China and Asean countries rose to $362.8 billion.)
China is offering enhanced economic cooperation, investment, and trade with an assistance fund of at least $10 billion as a joint development platform with its southern neighbors. It wants to play a “positive role” in ensuring economic stability and addressing festering security issues and territorial disputes in the region. As CPC theoretician Li Junru puts it, “The long-term security of East Asia hinges on the proper settlement of these problems” with the use of a “negotiatory security mechanism.”
Li cites Deng Xiaoping’s oft-quoted thought in 1978, the start of the controversial reform and modernization program: “laying aside disputes and engaging in common development” to solve territorial issues with neighboring countries. China’s leaders, such as outgoing President Hu Jintao, consistently echo the same principle that territorial contests should not hamper economic cooperation. (Interestingly, since 1949 many of China’s 27 historical border and territorial disputes have been settled peacefully, with Beijing at times bending backward.)
However, foreign meddling and the use of security alliances in the region’s territorial disputes do not sit well with China. Yang Minjie, research professor at the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, notes that contrary to public pronouncements, the United States is seeking to reposition its power in the SCS, which threatens to sow discord within Asean. Other China specialists suggest that no Asean country or defense alliance should be allowed as “a tool for US global strategy.” Just the same, both Yang and Li hinted that high-level talks were ongoing between China and the United States to resolve their differences within the framework of a “constructive strategic partnership.”
An irritant among Chinese officials in the territorial row with the Philippines is the perception that the latter is allowing itself to be used as a pawn in the US pivot and containment strategy against China, according to a Beijing-based, long-time observer of China affairs. Such a perception arises from the Aquino administration’s tight defense cooperation with the United States, which is marked by frequent joint war exercises and military aid as the Philippines asserts its territorial claims in the WPS under international law. Is a signal being sent to the Philippine government that its provocative security alliance with the United States vis-à-vis China is actually the main thorn in PH-China relations?
The same observer explains that China’s core interest in the SCS is not so much about the disputed islands, natural gas deposits, or marine resources as its southern border and maritime security. Having been invaded from the sea and then colonized by America, European powers, and Japan in the mid-19th century until the 1940s, China is more than ever protective of its borders and waters today, he says. So long as the SCS is rocked by territorial tensions, US naval projection, and hostile security alliances, China will assert its maritime force proportional to a rising world power.
But if tensions and threats can be neutralized or defused by soft power—i.e., economic diplomacy—then this is the track most desirable to China at the moment. Pragmatism and flexibility dictate China’s world affairs in furtherance of domestic economic reform and modernization.
Meanwhile, a white paper by the University of the Philippines Asian Center proposes that the government get its act together with respect to the tensions in the WPS. The Aquino administration needs a comprehensive and strategic foreign policy particularly in its relations with China. Before anything else, the white paper says, the Philippines should develop a self-reliant and independent foreign policy.
Bobby M. Tuazon is the director for policy studies of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance and a former head of UP Manila’s political science program.
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