Rebalancing PH external relations (3)

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A region of peace and prosperity
What was sadly lacking in the SONA, as pointed out by Former President Fidel V. Ramos was the West Philippine issue. This has left observers wondering if this country has a strategy with regard to the dispute. This said, many scholars have envisioned the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) as a region of peace and progress through the establishment of a stable maritime regime based on mutual restraint, transparency, trust and confidence.

Its hallmarks are demilitarisation, cooperative management of resources, development in a sustainable manner, a guarantor of safe passage and the prevention of illegal activities such as piracy, with a mechanism for consultation for the resolution of disputes and a facility that ensures the exchange of scientific data and transfer of technology.

The balancing act
While Asia-Pacific policymakers are toying with the options of ‘’containing’’ or ‘’engaging’’ China, most observers agree that it is neither one nor the other but both for these strategies to succeed. The optimal solution is to discourage China’s ambition to become hegemonic, while encouraging the Chinese economy to be increasingly interdependent with those of its neighbours.

For the time being, the Asean countries are gambling that the economic development taking place in the Pacific Basin which will work to bind all its countries together with mutually beneficial results.


Today the nations of Southeast Asia are learning the balancing act and avoiding the bandwagoning game. By and large, they have tried to balance between the United States and China by facilitating the retention of US involvement and forward deployment in the region, and by engaging China both economically and politically. In other words while Asean states as a whole are eager to develop closer political and economic relations with China, they are encouraging the US to continue playing a policeman’s role by maintaining its military and strategic involvement in the region, as a hedge against possible Chinese military adventurism.

Southeast Asian countries however do not consider China as an immediate threat, preferring to consider Chinese presence in the region as a challenge. In fact they consider China as an engine for economic growth. Indeed Southeast Asia has no choice but to engage with China, as it is, by virtue of geography and history, the reality that she is an intrinsic part of the region and a great regional power, and the fact that Chinese influence is rising fast in the region, mainly in terms of trade and investment, and also in the realm of regional politics.

Against this backdrop, “hedging their bets” has become the norm of conduct in the external relations of Asean countries. With regard to relations with China and the US, Asean members’ hedging activities may be defined as cultivating a middle position that prevents them from choosing one side at the obvious expense of another.

Foreign policy experts tend to consider China as ambitious but less than malevolent as she continues to pursue peaceful relations with her neighbors because it needs a stable regional environment for its economic development. The prospect of China undermining the regional order that currently serves its interest is considered not to be part of China’s strategy in the immediate term. She is therefore considered to be pro-status quo–except of course in matters of exercising control over islands, reefs and shoals, etc. that belong to the Philippines.

Regional defence experts and the US military however look with the utmost concern at the continuing build-up of the Chinese military but consider it manageable as long as the United States is in the area. Foreign policy makers in the region are seemingly unconcerned over the immediacy of the threat but concede that in the long pull, China will, with its economic power, build a military powerful enough to compete with the armed forces of the US and other regional powers like Japan and to a lesser extent South Korea and Vietnam.

Philippines-China relations
While our country wants to deal with China multilaterally, the Philippines continues to work to deepen its relations with China. In 2000, the Philippines and China concluded the Framework of Bilateral Cooperation in 21st Century. In President Arroyo’s state visit to China in early 2005, the Philippines and China concluded a number of agreements which were expected to enhance bilateral trade and cooperation in various areas of concern. The two countries’ agreements in 2004 to strengthen defence cooperation and to undertake development projects (such as the unfortunately derailed North Rail and the ZTE-NBN projects) manifested a keen interest on the part of this country to engage China and to court her as a reliable partner in development. At the same time, the Philippines maintained its historic close relationship with the US using it to secure our borders against a possible hegemonic China such as the Visiting Forces Agreement. Indeed, the Philippines joins the Asean community in supporting US presence in the region and her maintenance of forward-deployed troops in Northeast Asia to make sure that China preserves the freedom of navigation in the South and North China Seas as well as prevent a power vacuum in Asia which, if allowed to occur, is bound to intensity Sino-Japanese rivalry.

To be concluded next Saturday

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1 Comment

  1. The key to making progress in the West Philippine Sea impasse is to understand all of the factors driving China to claim the islets. Of these factors, much has been made of “recovering from humiliation” and “new imperialism” but less attention has been paid to China’s security interests.

    China is very dependent on sea lanes for its imports and exports, and this dependence is only growing. Energy and food imports mostly come by sea. Presently, however, sea lanes with Europe, the Mideast, Africa and even South America can be blockaded from a Philippine base. The choke point between Vietnam and Palawan is about 500 km and the other choke point from Taiwan to Batanes even less, whereas ships to/from China passing to the north of Taiwan all have to sail near Okinawa. In this age of drones and missiles, this geography places all commercial shipping to and from China under threat.

    Singapore and certain Indonesian straits have traditionally been considered as “the” choke points to East Asia, but that was during a more Eurocentric time, before the development of South America and ASEAN as major economies and resource exporters, and also ignores the Pacific Ocean. From the point of view of China now, it is Philippines, Taiwan, and the Okinawan island chain that unavoidably sit at the front doorstep.

    Just as Reagan and Gorbachev agreed to “trust but verify,” I believe that China seeks some verifiable assurance that its southern sea access will not be blockaded from Philippine base(s). That is the realpolitik motivation for it to act so belligerently with us, and over such small specks of rocks.