THE greatest abuse people had of their minds regarding the just past Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders Meeting in Manila is in believing that APEC is a grouping for purely economic concerns so that political issues, like China’s increasing assertiveness over a large section of the Spratly’s in particular and over the whole of South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) in general, are not to get in the way of achieving harmony in the region’s economic relations.
President Benigno Aquino 3rd is thus, widely faulted for having executed that all too obvious snub of China President Xi Jinping in their walk with other leaders from the entrance of the Philippine International Convention Center (PICC) building to the plenary hall on Nov. 18, 2015. That walk took more or less three minutes, more than enough leeway for Aquino to have thrown a gracious “ni hao” to Xi Jinping, who was just an arm’s length away and practically abreast but for Chile’s President Michelle Bachelet walking in between. But no, Aquino kept his leisurely stride, all the while conversing with Bachelet as if Xi Jinping was in limbo.
What none of those who keenly observed the slight ever realized was that Aquino was just being true to his endemically vindictive self. In the East Asia Summit held in Bali, Indonesia previous to the just concluded one in Myanmar, President Xi Jinping sort of trooped the line of attending heads of state, shaking the hand of each of them but passing off a particular one – that of President Benigno Aquino 3rd. A Philippine newsman covering the affair overheard the Chinese leader quip afterward, “I’ll wait for the next Philippine President.”
Unforltunately for President Xi Jinping, the next Philippine President would not yet come about before the last APEC Leaders Meeting and so Aquino would still be around to return the disfavor he got in Bali.
It did appear for a while that Aquino’s hurt from that Bali incident must have been bygone when he refrained from raising the South China (West Philippine) Sea issue in his speech in the two-day APEC forum, as requested by China. But ignoring the Chinese leader in full view of the media was already an indication that Aquino was toeing a line yet to be made manifest when US President Barack Obama declared in the APEC proceedings that “bold steps” needed to be taken to stop China reclamation activities in the Spratlys. Exactly what that line was, Aquino unraveled in the immediately ensuing Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In his speech before his ASEAN counterparts November 21, 2015, he declared, “We believe that as a rules-based community, ASEAN should not allow any country, no matter how powerful, to claim an entire sea as its own and to use force or the threat thereof in asserting such claim.”
On the South China (West Philippine) Sea issue, Aquino and Obama speak as one. When Obama turns belligerent, so Aquino must, never mind that economic pragmatism apparently dictates that the Philippines stay friendly to China all for it being the biggest trading partner of the country. Though statistics might be cited showing China accounting for 20% of Philippine total trade, the highest in the list of the country’s trading partners, this is no argument for a mellowing of Aquino’s animosity toward China.
In foreign relations, most particularly in world politics, the Philippines has never been known to pursue a policy independent of that of America, except beginning in the late stage of the Marcos rule when the country began pursuing friendly relations with socialist Russia and the People’s Republic of China – something the United States would otherwise have none of. But Marcos did it, thereby getting American flak, which ultimately culminated in his ouster by the US-sponsored Cory revolt called EDSA I.
It smacks of naivete to believe that because China is a top Philippine trading partner, the country should not contest it on political issues. Trade, to begin with, is a two-way relationship, a symbiotic one in which trading partners gain mutual benefits. The Philippines benefits from China, China benefits from the Philippines. Nothing in that relationship mandates one to be beholden to the other; nothing requires either to sideline political issues in order to preserve harmony in economic relationship,
In all events, the Marxist dictum stands: economic power begets political power, political power serves economic power. Anybody steeped in this principle is bound to understand that addressing the many economic concerns taken up in the past APEC forum necessitates putting into play the political – read it military – element of the contest for hegemony over the Asia Pacific region between the United States and China. Political economy, far from separating economics from politics, combines politics and economics.
Obama did right when he threatened to take “bold steps” in combating China reclamation activities over the Spratlys. That’s his job. Aquino did right in echoing Obama’s threat at the ASEAN summit. That’s his job – though not as head of state like Obama but as Obama’s stand-in, serving the same thing.
US pivot to the Asia Pacific, a political move, is certainly not without one whole ocean of economic ramifications: China’s devaluation of the RMB that results in the weakening of the dollar, China’s lording it over now in place of US in trade with Southeast Asian countries, China’s exports displacing US products right in the latter’s markets, the race in cyber technology, and to top it all, a reportedly 3-trillion-dollar US indebtedness to China. If a 20% China contribution to total Philippine trade is reason enough for a non-political – read that, non-confrontational – relationship by the Philippines with China, all the more should a 3-trillion-dollar indebtedness by US should soften it to marshmallow in dealing with the now Asian behemoth.
On the contrary, the more economically US gets enmeshed with China, the more averse to it US becomes.
Precisely, that’s political economy.
Harmony with China is a Philippine illusion, given the circumstances the country is in. The nation is in the vortex of the US-China struggle for hegemony in the Asia Pacific region. Whether we like it or not, we cannot escape from that vortex – that is, as far as the US is concerned. That’s how badly America needs us.
As far as China is concerned, the Philippines is no more than an American tool. This was
expressed in an editorial by the English-language China Daily: “No matter how willing we are to discuss the issue, the current Philippine leadership is intent on pressing us into a corner where there is no other left but the use of arms… Manila is living in a fantasy world if it mistakes our forbearance for timidity. This is a dangerous delusion. We have never been a trigger-happy nation. But nor have we ever been afraid to fight when necessary… the Philippines should stop being a troublemaker and drop its ridiculous claim. Otherwise they will learn to their cost how serious we are about our land and sea.”
Political Science Professor Robert Owen Keohane of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University makes an elaboration in this regard which serves as guidepost for gaining contextual view of the Sino-Philippines economic relationship.
In his book, After Hegemony, Cooperation and Discord in the World Political Economy, Keohane writes: “Thus even a rising level of absolute cooperation may be overwhelmed by discord as increased interdependence and governmental intervention create more opportunities for policy conflict… Students should not wait for cooperation to become the rule rather than the exception before studying it, for ignorance how to promote cooperation can lead to discord, conflict and economic disaster before cooperation ever has a chance to prevail.”
“In world politics,” Keohane avers, “uncertainty is rife, making agreements is difficult, and no secure barriers prevent military and security questions from impinging on economic affairs.”
When Obama called for “bold steps” to stop Chinese reclamations on the Spratlys, wasn’t that military and security questions impinging on Philippine-China economic affairs?
No doubt, trade relationship between China and the Philippine archipelago, which began long before the Spanish conquests of the islands, has been enriched over the ages and now grown into a heritage worthy of being treasured by the Filipino nation. But that heritage has over the years been interwoven inextricably with own economic interests of the United States. When Aquino, in the immediately following ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, called for a stop to China’s “use of force or the threat thereof” in asserting its claim to the whole of South China (West Philippine) Sea, there was no more wishing he could have done otherwise just to preserve economic cooperation with China. It has come to a point where between China and the Philippines, it is no longer economic cooperation that is at play. It is the need for the Philippines to advance the economic interests of the United States in the Asia Pacific region where it is locked with China in a struggle for hegemony.
Says Keohane in his book, “As long as a world political economy persists, therefore, its central political dilemma will be how to organize cooperation without hegemony.”
The implication of this assertion is horrific. Hegemony is a requisite for cooperation rather than the other way around. But hegemony ultimately means military ascendancy by one hegemonic pretender over the other. It means war.
It seemed the height of irresponsibility and a wanton disregard for the nation’s welfare that President Benigno C. Aquino III executed his grand snub of President Xi Jinping. But was it? He could not be so idiotic as not to realize that he was flirting with China’s belligerence and the horrors of war that his act could bring. Still he did it, purposely at that.
If, then, China finally feels itself being “pushed to a corner where there is no other [recourse]left but the use of arms,” then President Benigno C. Aquino III deserves congratulations for a job well done.