Before talking about what we want from Beijing, let’s figure out what it wants from us.
It’s not sovereignty over the South China Sea (SCS) and the Spratlys, or any expanses of water or bits of rock and reef it wants to wangle from President Rodrigo Duterte.
The Chinese know that, like them, no nation ever gives up air, water or land without a fight. And if a leader is dumb enough to actually sign away territory and patrimony, he wouldn’t stay in power long enough to make good on the deal.
What’s worse, the country that got duped into letting go of its real estate would only get deeper into Washington’s embrace, to get back what it foolishly gave up, or at least to get even with Beijing.
Not to mention the rest of the neighbors: all rival claimants would be spooked into signing their own versions of the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with Uncle Sam. And that’s the nightmare scenario China absolutely wants to avoid.
So while Beijing may huff and puff about its “nine-dash line” claiming nearly all the SCS and its various islands, shoals and reefs, it’s realistic enough to know that its tough-talking guest won’t give up that prize, as he has repeatedly declared.
The Chinese are also wise enough to foresee that grabbing more territory would only galvanize nations around the SCS against it and in tighter alliance with Washington.
So why didn’t Beijing’s 2012 takeover of Scarborough Shoal push most rival SCS claimants to sign their own EDCAs with the US, as it did the Philippines. One big reason may be the view even in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that then-President Benigno Aquino 3rd’s adversarial stance unnecessarily escalated the incident.
Instead of quietly settling the dispute over the arrest of Chinese fishermen poaching endangered marine life in the shoal, as similar incidents had been defused in the past, a Philippine Navy cutter faced off with Chinese marine surveillance ships.
Aquino himself talked tough, asserting territorial claims and pledging to defend “Recto bank like Recto Avenue.” Most of Asean probably expected the strong Chinese response, and some nations might have wondered if the confrontation was meant to buttress Washington’s push for stronger alliances against regional threats.
Now, Aquino’s successor Duterte has accepted Beijing’s longstanding offer of bilateral talks. If that conciliatory tack further undermines Philippine territorial claims and maritime security, it would show that negotiations are pointless or even perilous. Rival claimants may then beef up their forces – and American protection.
What China urgently wants
So what would China want from the man from Davao? In two words: America out.
Washington’s pivot to Asia policy to enhance alliances and shift 60 percent of naval assets to the region cannot but raise fears in Beijing. The increased deployment of nuclear-armed ships, submarines, planes and missiles directly threaten China and its vital shipping, including four-fifths of its oil imports, which transits the South China Sea.
The main platform for this massive naval buildup – the largest peacetime redeployment of the American armada ever – is the Philippines. Under the EDCA, US forces escalate rotations in the archipelago and use our bases. Washington has picked five initially: Mactan near Cebu, Puerto Princesa, Cagayan de Oro, Nueva Ecija, and Pampanga.
From our territory, US cruise missiles can hit most of China, as well as its sea lanes. With this burgeoning threat, the PLA has built up capabilities on the high seas, including massive reclamation and military-capable facilities on Fire Cross and Mischief reefs.
Furthermore, the Chinese probably see American might the same way the US regarded European forces as a rising power in the 19th Century. In 1823, then-President James Monroe told European imperial nations, then the world’s hegemons, to keep out of the Western Hemisphere.
Today, China is in the geopolitical position of 1800s America, facing the dominant global superpower in its region. To pare down that formidable armed might, Beijing needs to persuade President Duterte to scrap or at least scale down the EDCA. In exchange, it must make concessions and undertake protocols that would slash the threat of territorial encroachments and maritime militarization against the Philippines.
That, in a nutshell, is the high-stakes game to be played on the negotiating tables by Manila and Beijing.
What Duterte should demand
What should the Philippines bargain for in its talks with China? A return of Filipino fishermen to Scarborough Shoal would get many cheers for Duterte at home, but that’s small change.
The real deal are concessions to avoid another loss of control over territory, like Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012. Plus: a binding pact circumscribing armed actions in the South China Sea, especially in disputed areas, and promoting activities that build confidence and cooperation.
In short, the talks with China must enhance Philippine security to the point that we can reduce or remove US forces in the country. Otherwise, no deal and Uncle Sam stays.
One indispensable provision is for China and Asean to conclude the long-delayed binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. Duterte must insist that Beijing sign the CoC before he even begins winding down the EDCA.
Another provision to work for in the talks is limiting PLA activity on Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs, and opening them to international marine, tourism, environmental, and other peaceful undertakings. If it agrees, Beijing would want the option to quickly militarize the reclaimed islands should there be actual or impending conflict.
Of course, there should be provisions for constant communications and rules of deployment and engagement to contain incidents and prevent encroachments; these can also be incorporated in the Code of Conduct.
Duterte would also want economic concessions to offset somewhat the expected decrease in Western and Japanese aid, trade and investment if the EDCA goes. And he can calibrate its implementation based on Beijing’s acceptance of protocols for our national security.
So, let the talks begin. Asian peace and security depend on it.