JOEL Rocamora’s article last year in Rappler (“Duterte’s China card,” October 24, 2016) best represents the views of those who are skeptical of Duterte’s recalibration of Philippine foreign policy. Rocamora panned Duterte’s alignment with China—and Russia. He questioned its strategic value—or lack of it. “We have become the laughingstock of the world,” Rocamora concluded. “In the end, our biggest problem is that our President is, plain and simple, incompetent.”
Rocamora’s analysis is all shine but wanting in substance. It dismisses Duterte’s strategic move as hogwash but fails to demonstrate that this strategic move is the least desirable option given the current geopolitical situation. What ultimately weakened Rocamora’s analysis is his questionable appreciation of facts, events, current political economic reality, and US interests.
Rocamora said that US military projection in the South China Sea “is in support of freedom of navigation and international rules on territorial claims (UNCLOS), in this case represented by the decision of an arbitral tribunal in The Hague.”
First of all, the UNCLOS is not a rule on territorial claim. The decision of the arbitral tribunal in The Hague made this clear; UNCLOS “does not address the sovereignty of States over land territory.” Because of this, the arbitral tribunal cannot “make any ruling as to which State enjoys sovereignty over any land territory in the South China Sea, in particular with respect to the disputes concerning sovereignty over the Spratly Islands or Scarborough Shoal.” Furthermore, as the arbitral decision has confirmed, UNCLOS doesn’t also “contain provisions concerning the delimitation of maritime boundaries.”
Rocamora isn’t being transparent about what kind of navigation the United States is trying to protect in the South China Sea: commercial or military? At one point, it seems that he meant commercial navigation. China, according to Rocamora, would “want military control over vital sea lanes through which $5 trillion in trade pass per year.” This would be an existential threat to Japan, Rocamora warned. However, this could only be a threat to Japan if 1) the commercial trade passing through the South China Sea is mostly going to Japan; and 2) that Japan’s trade partners depend on the South China Sea. Considering the two conditions exposes the weakness of Rocamora’s argument.
Most of the trade passing through the South China Sea are going to China. Because of this, one can reasonably argue that any military projection of China in the South China Sea is meant to secure that trade route through which its export-oriented economy largely depends. Furthermore, China’s maritime assertiveness is rooted in its own history of being attacked by European and Japanese powers via the sea. Learning from its painful experience, China aims to strengthen its maritime defense in order to stem a repeat of that history. And it’s doing it by getting better control of the trade route to and from its shores.
The South China Sea is Japan’s major energy supply route; a bulk of it comes from the Middle East. But Japan is already diversifying its energy sources. For example, Japan’s deepening bilateral relations with Russia is largely energy-related. The Ukraine crisis induced Russia to pivot to the East, while the Fukushima disaster spurred Japan to warm up to Russia.
According to the Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook, as of 2015 Japan’s top import partners are “China 24.8 percent, US 10.5 percent, Australia 5.4 percent, South Korea 4.1 percent; while its top export partners are US 20.2 percent, China 17.5 percent, South Korea 7.1 percent, Hong Kong 5.6 percent, Thailand 4.5 percent.” China is the top trading partner of Japan. The economic relationship between Japan, China and South Korea is set to intensify because they signed a trilateral landmark free trade agreement in June 2015.
Given these facts, why did Rocamora say that China’s presence in the South China Sea would be an existential threat to Japan whose top trade partner is China, with whom Japan signed a trilateral free trade agreement with South Korea? Why would China choke Japan’s economy while at the same time deepen its economic relations with it? It doesn’t make any sense — perhaps it does in Rocamora’s universe.
Let me conclude this with a conversation I had with a former Dutch classmate. He asked me to help him make sense of what’s going on with our country’s strange turn in its foreign policy. I told him: What’s there to explain? Duterte is simply doing what Europeans did to the US. Except the curses, the deeds are the same. The US urged European countries to not join China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. But what did EU countries do? They defied their long-time ally and courted Chinese investments. The Dutch King even visited China in 2015! So, why can’t the Philippines do the same thing as EU countries are doing?
For Rocamora and those who share his views, we are the laughingstock of the world for doing exactly what the rest of the world is doing: deepening their economic ties and forming strategic partnerships with China to the chagrin of Uncle Sam.