A toxic relationship

Talking tough on China may play well in Philippines politics, but is there any hope of salvaging a relationship fraught with anxiety over the South China Sea?

Richard J Heydarian

Government and governance, Trade and industry, International relations, National security | Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia

11 August 2015

One side has compared the other to Nazi Germany, while the other has called them ‘troublemakers’. Is there any hope of repairing the relationship between China and the Philippines?

Among competing claimant states in the South China Sea, the Philippines and China arguably have the most toxic bilateral relationship. True, China’s active (if not aggressive) assertion of its territorial claims across adjacent waters has rattled littoral states across the “First Island Chain” and beyond. Even non-claimant states such as Indonesia and Singapore have become increasingly vocal with their anxieties over the trajectory of the maritime disputes in the area, and are now gradually stepping up their security ties with the United States.

Philippine-China relations, however, are particularly grim. With the Philippines entering its own election season, there are growing speculations as to whether a new leadership in Manila will usher in new bilateral dynamics with China. Although surveys suggest that a growing number of Filipinos are now skeptical (46 per cent) vis-à-vis the Aquino administration’s approach to China, it is unlikely that its successor will be able to adopt a radically different strategy — unless China is open to genuine compromise.

The Frontline State

Despite its millennium-old struggles of national independence against its powerful northern neighbour, not to mention their repeated skirmishes over disputed features in recent memory, Vietnam has managed to maintain robust, high-level communication channels as well as booming economic ties with China. Even at the height of the ‘oil rig crisis’ in mid-2014, Hanoi and Beijing maintained constant communication at the highest levels, dispatching top-level envoys to each other’s capital in order to prevent full-blown bilateral estrangement.

Brunei — eager to avoid confrontation — has effectively abandoned any active assertion of its overlapping territorial claims with China, while Malaysia has astutely insulated its vibrant bilateral ties with China from the vicissitudes of their maritime disputes in the South China Sea. If anything, China has historically been more patient and gentle in asserting its claims within Malaysia’s 200-nautical-miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), even when Kuala Lumpur — to China’s chagrin – joined Vietnam (2009) in asserting  its continental shelf rights at the United Nations.

Now contrast these to the awry state of Philippine-China relations.

Since Xi Jinping came into power in late-2012, he has yet to make a formal visit to the Philippines, or hold even a single formal summit with his Filipino counterpart, Benigno “NoyNoy” Aquino. Even his foreign minister, Wang Yi, is yet to visit Manila. Meanwhile, top Chinese officials have visited other neighbouring countries, including Vietnam and Malaysia, in recent years, while Xi even consented to a formal dialogue with Japan’s firebrand Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the 2014 APEC Summit.

In order to prevent unwanted escalation and accidental clashes in the high seas, both Vietnam and Japan have pursued/established various confidence-building measures with China. Astonishingly, the Philippines and China are yet to establish even a single hotline between their relevant agencies.

Bitter neighbours

On at least two occasions, Aquino went so far as likening China to Nazi Germany, with other officials frequently using the term “bully” against Beijing, while China has showed little reticence with calling, often implicitly, the Philippines a “troublemaker”.

After China coercively wrested control of the Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012, and the following year stepped up its intimidation of the Filipino troops stationed on a ragtag outpost on the Second Thomas Shoal, the Philippines became the first country to take China to the court over the South China Sea disputes, kicking off a protracted and bitter legal showdown at an Arbitral Tribunal at The Hague.

The Aquino administration has also postponed formal membership in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), questioning the agenda behind and the overall transparency of its governing structure. Clearly, the South China disputes are defining the overall texture of Philippine-China relations. But some analysts suggest that a more pragmatic Filipino leadership could start, similar to Malaysia, to decouple the maritime spats from broader diplomatic-economic relations with China. There are, however, reasons for skepticism.

To begin with, talking tough to China is good domestic politics in the Philippines, especially in light of the national hysteria over a potential war in the South China Sea. According to one survey, 93 per cent of the Filipinos fear an outright war (with China) over disputed features, with a clear majority (58 per cent) viewing Beijing as a national security threat. Growing anti-China sentiments have been reaching new heights, with a leading Filipino writer recently going so far as questioning the loyalty of the Filipino-Chinese community.

A leading candidate, who called for a reset in relations with China, is now confronting corruption scandals and rapidly losing popular support. Amid rising patriotism and with a growing number of media outlets, prominent academics, former officials, and civil society groups devoting their resources to monitoring the South China Sea disputes, the Philippine government has and will continue to struggle to insulate its China policy from vigilant and passionate public scrutiny.  This has dramatically reduced the room for diplomatic manoeuvring, especially given the Philippines’ vibrant democracy and vivacious media.

Above all, the highly unpopular Arroyo administration (2001-2010), which engaged in a controversial joint development scheme in disputed waters shortly before striking corruption-ridden projects with China, has left a lasting negative impression on the Filipino elite and populace, many of whom have come to view any diplomatic engagement with China as futile — if not a sign of surrender. Unless China dramatically scales back its para-military patrols, military exercises, and construction activities across disputed waters, any Filipino leader will undoubtedly face an uphill battle, if not domestic backlash, in exploring a more pragmatic relationship with Beijing.

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29 Responses

  1. dancus says:

    You cannot have a genuine talk when the other party insist of their right due to historical claim. China would like to have a bilateral talk but is always insisting that the whole Spratleys are theirs based on drawing(9dash or 10dash line).If one party has a prejudice to the other then an agreement to meet cannot start when there is no point of reference for a talk,

  2. ronald fatalla says:

    the comparison of our country’s relationship with china with that of other claimant countries says it all. it is only us that china is bullying and agressively pursuing their 9 dash line claim within our eez ‘coz the communist govt of china think we are the weakest link. we maybe are the weakest militarily, but we are the strongest when it comes to observing, submitting to, and complying with the relevant international laws.

  3. REUEL RICARDO says:

    How can you negotiate with china when the condition is accepting first the 9 dash line? In my opinion why they treat our issue differently is they are testing their power against the USA. If USA will not lift a finger then China can do anything in Asia like a bull, because nobody can match their firepower, especially as they have pawns in the ASEAN that divides the union in favour of China.

  4. Gleene Luis Siason says:

    We just hope we can still repair this relation. Talking is one thing but conditions like accepting the 9 dash line before any talks is nit acceotable since this is the primary reason with have this problem in the first place. The author forgot to mentioned the most affected party are the Filipino fishermen who have lost their livelihood in this situation. Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Vietnam do not have this same problem that would impact their countrymen. However once it does they will be more vocal on this issue.

  5. Joseph vo says:

    At least the public opinion in the Philippines is something the public came up with themselves from watching the news. Compare and contrast with China where everything is force fed through the Communist Party’s mouthpieces. The Philippines is hardly the only one talking tough.

  6. Rene Dilan says:

    I just hope war doesn’t break out. Its total nonesense to spill blood over a piece of rock in the middle of nowhere. I am sure no level headed Filipino or Chinese would like to shoot each other. But I just hope those Chinese on the piece of rock called Scarborough Shoal allow our fishermen to do their business in peace. Or stop blockading the Philippine Marine on a beached rusty boat. Those guys got a family to feed,

  7. Ricardo says:

    After helping the Chinese during their tumultuous years, this is what we get from the communist government.Arrogance has its limit!

    • Wilson says:

      China doesn’t have so powerful military either,and whether the place belonging to China has abundant resources or not, it will pursuit to give it back. But in my opinion, we actually can jointly develop these islets, the most important thing is we should protect fishermen from any party.

  8. Jay R. Delfin says:

    China is a bully. Period. If it can even disrespect the United Nations why would anybody think it woyld respect a small country like the Philippines when they sit across the bilateral negotiating table. Precisely, China prefers bilateral talks because the clai ant countries are each small individually but together can become a bigger force to deal with. Unfortunately it seems that among claimant states, it is only the Philippines that is not willing to comprise its sovereignty or indeed national self respect even at the expense of economics or politics.

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