US should support Beijing andManila normalizing ties
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s four-day state visit to China, scheduled to start on Tuesday, has drawn extensive attention from the international community since it was made public.
Duterte’s government has made clear its priority is to improve domestic economic conditions and people’s livelihoods, and it wants to take advantage of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative to help realize these aims.
Duterte also wants to break the diplomatic impasse with China over the South China Sea created by former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III. From Jan 22, 2013 when the Aquino government unilaterally filed a case to an international tribunal on the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea to July 12 when the tribunal ruled on the case — which was actually beyond its jurisdiction— the Chinese government consistently made clear its “non-acceptance, non-participation and non-recognition” of the arbitration, which means the Philippines has not been able to gain substantial benefits from the arbitration.
At the same time, the signing of a joint statement between the foreign ministers of China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on July 25 aimed at fully fulfilling the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, along with the guideline on setting up a high-level hotline for maritime emergencies and the joint statement on rules in the event of accidental encounters in the South China Sea, passed by China and the bloc at a summit on Sept 7, also made the newPhilippine government aware that the South China Sea issue is not the full picture of ASEAN’s ties with China. Any obstinate confrontation with China, it believes, might cause the Philippines to lose some opportunities it might otherwise take advantage of, including China’s booming outward investment.
Also, faced with changed international circumstances, the new Philippine government does not solely want to depend on theUnited States. So, it is no surprise that the Philippines has attempted to reviewits agreement signed with theUS on strengthened defense cooperation and even demanded US troops withdrawfrom its territory. The words and actions of Duterte since being elected president indicate that the newgovernment seems to be reconsidering the Philippines’ previous diplomatic dependence on theUS. However, the feasibility of this diplomatic approach remains to be seen. Prior to the establishment of a newgov- ernment, theUS will unlikely make a forcible response to the Philippines’ policy change, theoretically leaving space forManila to adjust its previous pro-US diplomatic policy.
Meanwhile, despite their divergences over the South China Sea, China and theUS still engage in extensive cooperation, fromUN peacekeeping missions and fighting terrorism to efforts to curb the proliferation of nuclear weapons and mitigate the effects of climate change, not to mention their economic collaboration and people-topeople exchanges. In particular, the two countries have maintained unblocked dialogue channels and strengthened security and maritime cooperation, such as a memorandum of understanding on mutually reporting their significant military actions and aMOU on how they behave at time of maritime and air encounters, both passed inNovember 2014. At the G20Hangzhou Summit in early September, Beijing andWashington also reached consensuses on such issues as the establishment of a newpattern of big country relations, strengthening coastal guard and maritime cooperation and enhancing their interactions and security cooperation in the AsiaPacific region.
The Philippines has also shown its intention to strengthen ties with Japan in an attempt to strike a diplomatic balance and acquire more interests. Japan’s unconcealed attempt to contain China’s further development also leaves more space forManila to pursue closer political, diplomatic, security and economic ties with Tokyo.
Duterte’s visit to China does not constitute a part of the alleged struggle between Beijing and Washington forManila. A better China-Philippine relationship is essentially beneficial to the whole Asia-Pacific region. For the sake of regional peace and stability, theUS should support Beijing andManila normalizing their ties. The author is director of the China Ocean Strategy Studies Center at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.