China’s ifs: The sweetness and madness of a political promise



IN my foreign service classes, I always tell my students who are majoring in diplomacy that if there is a longstanding statement like a rose is a rose is a rose, then a promise is a promise is a promise. China on March 27 assured President Duterte of its commitment to a “bilateral mechanism” and a code of conduct that would prevent territorial disputes in the South China Sea from erupting into conflict. According to the presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella, Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua told Mr. Duterte during a meeting in Davao City that China was looking forward to the convening in May of the first meeting of the bilateral mechanism set up to handle the South China Sea dispute. Yes, another development in the negotiations and floating offers from both sides with promises of investment and security.

We see a primary aim of China to establish a bilateral mechanism through which mutual trust and maritime cooperation will be forged and at the same time, misunderstandings will be avoided. This is in contrast to the policy of the previous Aquino administration during which the country invested heavily in its legal strategy against China, initiating a costly arbitration procedure to address the South China Sea dispute.

On the ground, China has been rapidly consolidating its grip on a whole host of contested features in the South China Sea, building a sprawling network of military and civilian bases, and creating the skeleton of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ). In many ways, the Philippines’ South China Sea strategy seems to be driven by an army of lawyers rather than tangible defense of its fortifications on the ground.

Zhao also reportedly said that China would cooperate with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) toward the conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to govern the behavior of the rival claimants. The Philippines, as this year’s Asean chair, is pushing for the completion of the framework for the proposed COC. China claims almost all of the South China Sea, but the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan have competing claims in the strategic waterway through which $5 trillion in global trade passes every year. Imagine the loss to China’s economy if it neglects the fostering of relations with the members of Asean which has become quite influential in the region by its actuations in the South China Sea.

China has refused to recognize the ruling last year of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in the case brought by the Philippines against its sweeping claims in the South China Sea, a ruling that invalidated China’s nine-dash-line claim to the SCS and upheld the Philippines’ extended economic zone entitlements. China is refusing to heed the arbitral court ruling probably because it figures it can make a deal withPresident Duterte. After winning the presidential election last year, Duterte upended Philippine foreign policy and set aside the PCA ruling that invalidated China’s claim and declared that Beijing had violated the Philippines rights’ to fish and exploit the resources in the West Philippine Sea, waters that lie within the country exclusive economic zone. Instead, Duterte steered forign policy away from the United States and made overtures to China and Russia.

Some say that the detractors of President Duterte should be thankful instead of bashing him. If not for his election as President, China would have already built an artificial island in the Scarborough Shoal, they say. One might say that China wanted to re-establish good relations with the Philippines, thus it indefinitely postponed its plans for Scarborough Shoal. It does make sense but it may also be a warning to the Philippines. Let us remember that over the past three years, as the arbitration case was proceeding at the PCA, China was reported to have reclaimed more than 800 to 900 hectares around some islets and reefs in the SCS, while expanding its patrols and conventional military exercises in the Scarborough/Panatag Shoal and even venturing to the northeastern side of the Philippines to explore Benham Rise, the vast undersea plateau that is recognized as belonging to the Philippines’ extended continental shelf. China’s plans for Scarorough and Panatag have been suspended for some reason for now, but who knows it may just decide to push through with them if the bilateral talks do not produce results favorable to it.

There has been a regional power vacuum in the Asia Pacific since the end of the Cold War. China has been aggressive in maneuvering in response to this power vacuum, at a time when the Philippines is struggling to strike an independent course after almost a century of security dependence on the United States.Aside from employing diplomacy, both bilaterally with China and under the aegis of Asean, the Ramos administration (1992 to1998) responded to the evolving security environment in the region by initiating a decades-long program to modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines. This is also the challenge to the Duterte administration. That while the Philippines is making friends with China, it needs to beef up its military to prepare the nation for possible conflict situations. This is one of the best practices of Japan that we need to adopt. In a nutshell, let’s hope China’s response will not just remain as words in the sand but a strong statement of genuine and actual promise to be governed by a clear and comprehensive Code of Conduct in the South China Sea.

The author works as a defense research analyst and writer for the government. He teaches political science and international relations/diplomacy at the Lyceum of the Philippines while pursuing a master’s degree in social science.


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