With Duterte’s visit, Manila will likely stop look­ing at rearview mir­ror

Global Times US Edition - - ASIANREVIE­W - By Chen Xiang­miao

Whether Philip­pine Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte, who is sched­uled to visit China from Wednesday to Sun­day, will dis­cuss the South China Sea is­sue with Bei­jing has caused quite a stir among some Western and Philip­pine me­dia out­lets.

The in­ter­ac­tion between China and the Philip­pines over the South China Sea is­sue in 2019 has seen in­ter­fer­ence by some in the Philip­pines and coun­tries out­side the re­gion. In par­tic­u­lar, some mem­bers of the op­po­si­tion and pro-us elites in the ar­chi­pel­ago na­tion pa­rade the “China threat the­ory” by try­ing to make an is­sue out of fish­ing rows with China in the waters sur­round­ing Zhongye Dao and the al­leged en­try of Chi­nese war­ships in Philip­pine waters. They aim to fuel grass-roots na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment and pres­sure the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion to raise the South China Sea ar­bi­tra­tion rul­ing with Bei­jing.

Ac­tu­ally, com­pared with the ad­min­is­tra­tion of for­mer pres­i­dent Benigno Aquino III, the im­por­tance of the South China Sea is­sue in Sino-philip­pine re­la­tions has been low­ered. Since bi­lat­eral re­la­tions turned around in the sec­ond half of 2016, co­op­er­a­tion in trade, in­vest­ment and peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes un­der the frame­work of the China-pro­posed Belt and Road Ini­tia­tive has re­placed the South China Sea is­sue to be­come the most im­por­tant agenda between the two coun­tries.

Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics, the to­tal trade vol­ume between China and the Philip­pines in­creased from $17.65 bil­lion in 2015 to over $30 bil­lion in 2018, nearly dou­bling in three years. China’s in­vest­ment in the Philip­pines in 2018 was 48.7 bil­lion yuan ($6.76 bil­lion), while the fig­ure for 2017 was only 576 mil­lion yuan ($80 mil­lion). Ad­di­tion­ally, the num­ber of Chi­nese main­land tourists trav­el­ing to the Philip­pines rose from 490,000 in 2015 to more than 1.25 mil­lion in 2018.

The Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion, some­times, had spo­ken tough on the South China Sea dis­pute. Such pro­cliv­ity has been forced by the op­po­si­tion, pro-us forces and na­tion­al­ist hubris, who re­gard the South China Sea is­sue as a lever­age in or­der to queer the pitch for the in­ter­nal and for­eign af­fairs of the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Th­ese forces are keen on using sen­si­tive agenda, such as co­op­er­a­tion in oil and gas ex­plo­ration between the two coun­tries, to whip up “patriotic” and “anti-china” na­tion­al­ist sen­ti­ment of the Philip­pine public. They at­tempt to de­stroy the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pol­icy of shelv­ing mar­itime con­flicts and en­hanc­ing eco­nomic and trade co­op­er­a­tion. Their ul­ti­mate goal is to scut­tle the Duterte ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to con­sol­i­date and boost do­mes­tic sup­port by improving the econ­omy and peo­ple’s lives.

How­ever, Bei­jing-manila ties have been on the right track. Whether the two coun­tries talk about the South China Sea is­sue will not have a sub­stan­tial im­pact on over­all bi­lat­eral ties. Both coun­tries have closely co­op­er­ated on trade, econ­omy and peo­ple-to-peo­ple ex­changes, and their in­ter­ac­tions on the South China Sea have also long been fo­cused on ne­go­ti­a­tion and co­op­er­a­tion. China and the Philip­pines have launched the bi­lat­eral consultati­on mech­a­nism, pro­vid­ing a long-term guar­an­tee to ac­tively ease mar­itime con­flicts, en­hance prac­ti­cal co­op­er­a­tion at sea and explore the fi­nal set­tle­ment of rel­e­vant mar­itime dis­putes. Sub­stan­tial achieve­ments have also been re­al­ized in do­mains such as ma­rine fish­ery and aqua­cul­ture, joint mar­itime law en­force­ment and oil and gas ex­plo­ration.

Although the South China Sea is­sue has been on the long-term agenda of the two coun­tries, it will not fun­da­men­tally change thaw­ing Sino-philip­pine re­la­tions.

Re­gional power com­pe­ti­tion in­cited by out­side coun­tries, such as the US and Japan, and uni­lat­eral moves by some claimants such as Viet­nam have re­cently in­ten­si­fied, which, to some ex­tent, has dis­rupted the stability of the South China Sea. How­ever, di­a­logue and co­op­er­a­tion will re­main the theme between China and the Philip­pines on the South China Sea is­sue thanks to the joint ef­forts. The two coun­tries will jointly explore and exploit oil and gas re­sources, con­serve fish­ery re­sources, sus­tain­ably de­velop fish­eries re­sources and co­op­er­ate in fields like ma­rine tourism and sci­en­tific re­search and en­vi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tion.

The South China Sea ar­bi­tra­tion is a lin­ger­ing shadow in the bi­lat­eral re­la­tions between China and the Philip­pines, but facts have proven that both coun­tries can re­solve their di­ver­gences through ne­go­ti­a­tions. The au­thor is an as­sis­tant re­search fel­low, Na­tional In­sti­tute for South China Sea Stud­ies. opin­[email protected]­al­times.com.cn

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu RUI/GT

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