In an ironically refreshing change of pace from the torrent of discouraging “pork barrel” news filling the country’s collective media spaces last week, the “snub” of President B.S. Aquino 3rd by the Chinese government that left the Palace Talking Persons scrambling to explain why, exactly, the President would not be leading the Philippine delegation to the 10th China-Asean Expo (CAExpo) in Nanning as he had already announced he would.
The story that both sides seem to have settled on is that there were difficulties in providing the relevant details of the members of President Aquino’s planned entourage to the Chinese authorities for visa issuance and security arrangement purposes, and that time simply ran out; hence the Chinese request that President Aquino visit “at a more conducive time.” This excuse is just fine with Malacañang, because it allows the Office of the President to blame the Department of Foreign Affairs for the mix-up. And from the Chinese point of view, it is a completely legitimate deferral, on the face of it; the Chinese government did, after all, invite a “high-level” delegation from the Philippines, rather than the President specifically.
While it is true (as far as we know) that they did not specifically ask the President not to attend in that invitation, his indication that he would attend requires the host country to make accommodations and plan accordingly. And President Aquino has developed a habit of traveling with an unusually bloated retinue, anywhere from 50 to 70 people; to properly host such a large party, the Chinese are quite within their bounds to ask the Philippine government to cooperate in completing procedural details. That didn’t happen, so regrettably, the Chinese were obliged to ask President Aquino to visit at another, more convenient time.
And that reasoning, of course, allows China to avoid creating a stir at a time when they are hosting most of the region’s other leaders by divulging the real reasons they told President Aquino to stay home. The Philippines, to the surprise of many and over the strident protests of China, has prevailed upon the United Nations to initiate hearings on the territorial dispute between the two countries in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). The Philippine legislature is presently assessing expanded military cooperation with the United States. And, as if to remind President Aquino of his first and in some ways most tragic failure in foreign relations, news from Hong Kong in the past two weeks indicates that a fresh lawsuit by victims of the August 2010 Luneta Bus Massacre against former Manila mayor Alfredo Lim and other officials is set to be filed in court.
My fellow Times columnist Ricardo Saludo pointed out that of the various issues that are potential flashpoints in Sino-Philippine relations, the expansion of US military involvement is by far the most serious, and the one likely to lead to a potentially dangerous situation. Contrary to what President Aquino would like to believe, American desire to expand its access to the Philippines—the new arrangement, which has not yet been accepted by the Philippines, will allow for a near-constant presence of US military assets here—has nothing at all to do with supporting the Philippines’ territorial aspirations, but is simply part of a larger package of moves to keep China in check. With a strong presence in Japan and Korea, and at least indirect presence in Thailand and Taiwan, the Philippines in a sense closes the loop; China realizes this, of course, and the more obvious it becomes that they are being hemmed in their Western rival, the fewer options they feel they have in responding to it.
Although the situation is certainly not as volatile, Saludo likens it to the Cuban Missile Crisis; even though the Soviet decision to base missiles in Cuba was provoked by repeated American attempts—albeit hilariously stupid ones, for the most part—to topple Communist strongman Fidel Castro, the US simply could not allow the other superpower to plant an offensive threat virtually on its doorstep. China may very well be looking at the Philippines as the Cuba of the 21st century, and—even without making a judgment about their or any other country’s territorial claims in the South China Sea—it is difficult to argue that they are wrong to take that point of view.
The US has no intention of going to war with China for any reason whatsoever, of course, and China likewise will do everything it can to avoid that fight. The risk, of course, is that the more on edge both powers are, the more likely a mistake or an ill-considered act by a third party caught in the middle will lead to a violently bad situation. And who is that third party? The President, of course, who completely misunderstands first-world geopolitical motivations and translates his gross misinterpretation of the Philippines’ role in the affairs of greater powers into an unsupportable, antagonistic position toward China. And, as always, the negative impact primarily hits the Philippines right in the pocketbook.
During the Arroyo administration, the three countries with the most strident claims in the South China Sea—China, the Philippines and Vietnam—made some admirable progress toward cooperative exploration and development work. It was not a perfect solution, as it side-stepped the territorial differences and left those unresolved, but at least the parties involved could potentially derive some benefits from the resources that are at the heart of the dispute. All that has stopped under President Aquino, and as a result, those badly needed resource benefits have disappeared from the country’s near- to medium-term future, if not longer. If that cooperation had continued, the Philippines would also be on better terms to dictate a less risky and more advantageous military arrangement with the US; anything that might have upset the existing cooperative balance could have been rejected.
Much more than the not-so-mysterious appearance of a few dozen randomly-placed concrete blocks on Scarborough Shoal, China’s “disinvitation” of President Aquino to the CAExpo is a potent warning shot in what may yet turn out to be a new cold war largely instigated—perhaps unintentionally, but recklessly nonetheless—by President Aquino himself. Limited to sending only Trade Secretary Gregory Domingo to the conference while almost all the regional neighbors are represented by their respective heads of state, the Philippines is left behind; Domingo is a capable official, but any deals that are struck require at least one more step in the approval process if they are struck with him, rather than a competing national leader already on the scene.
Lost opportunity is the outcome of liability, liability that was created when President Aquino’s impractical jingoism drove any sense of political reality out of the Philippines’ engagement with China. When one’s mouth starts writing checks his whole country can’t cash, maybe that one needs to step quietly to the background, and let someone with a little more circumspection do the talking for a change.