As we have said before in this space, the relationship between the Philippines and China should not be defined by the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
That relationship has many dimensions, including economic, people-to-people relations and other common interests. And while there are many common threats confronting both countries, from a security standpoint none is more disconcerting than the threat of a North Korea with weapons of mass destruction and long-range delivery capabilities.
Next year, the Philippines will take over the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean). Not only that, from mid-2018, Manila will take over Singapore’s role as country coordinator for Asean’s relations with China. Of course, trade and investment will top the agenda, but in order for economic relations to flourish, there must be peace and security in the larger Pacific region.
The Duterte government’s approach to China so far – to neither provoke nor taunt Beijing – should allow the Philippines to play the role of country coordinator more effectively. To be clear, finding common ground with China does not mean abandoning national interests or sovereignty rights.
On the contrary, working with China offers more positives than negatives. Those who doubt whether China can act responsibly should take a closer look at its actions on other issues, particularly those that pose a real threat to the region.
Encouraging signals from China
In May, North Korean government officials were stopped at the Beijing airport while attempting to enter China. One of these individuals was reportedly Jang Yong-son, an Iran-based North Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. representative who had flown in from Tehran, according to the english edition of The Chosun Ilbo.
The message to North Korea could not have been any clearer – that even senior officials of its government-affiliated organizations, and particularly its arms dealers, no longer enjoy effective immunity in China. While these detained individuals were eventually released – the paper said the Chinese officials tried to send Jang Yong-son back to Iran, but he resisted so they sent him to Pyongyang – such incidents are becoming an increasingly common occurence in Beijing, traditionally a favorite hub among North Koreans.
Before that incident, China and the UN Security Council passed Resolution 2270 in response to North Korea’s latest string of provocations. That resolution imposed additional sanctions on North Korea for its nuclear test in January and its ballistic missile launch the following month.
While similar previous sanctions had been passed and failed to deter North Korea’s aggressive nuclear ambitions, this time appears to be different. Apparently fed up with North Korea flouting China’s wishes and despite repeated attempts to guide its estwhile ally, Beijing appears to be committed to enforcing Resolution 2270 and imposing the real cost on the reclusive state.
The effectiveness of UN Resolution 2270, as with any initiative aimed at tempering North Korea’s behavior, hinges entirely on China’s participation. While historically its adherence to these types of sanctions has been mixed to say the least, China appears – at least in this instance – to be adhering to international law much more closely and making good-faith efforts to restrain its neighbor.
This type of constructive international engagement, wherein China employs its power and influence in a responsible fashion, should be lauded – ongoing disputes with its neighbors, like the Philippines, set aside for now – as evidence that Beijing takes international obligations seriously and can be prevailed upon, the nature of the issue and geopolitics permitting, to act accordingly.