What exactly happened in China’s supposed snub of President Benigno Aquino 3rd?
As late as August 26, he told media that a week later on Sept. 3, he would make a day trip to Nanning, capital of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in Southwest China, bordering Vietnam. “We are traveling next week,” he said in Filipino. “It will be a long trip to China. I will leave 5 a.m., back 5 p.m. We don’t want to wear out their welcome.”
The Chief Executive was to grace the 10th (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Asean-China Expo, which featured the Philippines country of honor. But the day after Aquino’s remarks, China’s Foreign Ministry said: “China never extended an invitation to the Philippine president.” And Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez announced: “The President has decided not to proceed to CAExpo, taking into consideration China’s request for the President to visit China at a more conducive time.”
Translation: While Sino-Philippine relations are unwell, President Aquino is not welcome in China. On Sept. 2, DFA spokesman Hernandez issued a statement claiming: “There were subsequent concerns and conditions to the President’s attendance, and such conditions were absolutely inimical to our national interest.”
The Foreign Affairs statement is hard to believe. As Tordesillas argued, if the Aquino government rejected supposed conditions for the Nanning trip, “why was he pushing through with the visit until China told Philippine officials he was not welcome at this time? Why wasn’t he the one who canceled the trip?”
In fact, it has been the Aquino government trying to rekindle relations despite a host of issues, but has been continually rebuffed. Explains Hernandez: “On the part of the Philippines, we will continue to abide by our principled position that bilateral relations can advance despite differences.”
Fat chance. The DFA should have gotten the hint when President Hu Jintao met with leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, including his Vietnamese counterpart, at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Forum summit in Vladivostok
a year ago—but declined three meeting requests from President Aquino.
Since that triple rebuff, the Philippines has sued China in the United Nations over territorial issues, and offered America and Japan access to military bases. While those actions may be justified in asserting Philippine interests, they certainly cannot be expected to thaw ties with Beijing.
Indeed, rather than the islands spat, the most serious concern for China now is Aquino’s push for increased rotations of U.S. forces in the Philippines and access to the country’s bases for both America and Japan. As this column has argued (see April 15 and July 7, 9 and 11 articles), escalating the U.S. Seventh Fleet’s deployment in Philippine waters and air space makes the Philippines a major nuclear and maritime threat to China.
If allowed, increased U.S. military rotations would put in the archipelago at all times a large complement of American warships, submarines and aircraft armed with nuclear-capable cruise missiles able to hit China’s leading cities and the bulk of its military facilities from the Philippines. U.S. forces in the country would also be in easy striking distance of Chinese shipping going through the South China Sea—including tankers carrying 80 percent of China’s oil imports.
Thus, President Aquino’s plan for enhanced U.S. military deployment would turn the Philippines into a strategic threat against China. That can hardly win him a welcome mat to Nanning or any other Chinese city. Indeed, when Cuba nearly did the same thing to America by agreeing to host Soviet atomic missiles in 1962, the U.S. cut all economic ties, shutting the island out of the world’s leading growth engine of the past half-century.
Aquino and other proponents of a greater U.S. military presence cite the need to deter Chinese aggression in the South China Sea and enhance Philippine security. Sadly, the strategy would have the opposite effect.
Making the Philippines a platform for American nuclear weaponry cannot but make China include the archipelago in its ballistic missile coverage. And as the Seventh Fleet deploys in Philippine territory close to Chinese shipping routes in the South China Sea, the People’s Liberation Army would have even more reason to expand its facilities in the Spratlys and other disputed areas as a defensive counterforce.
With the start last month of talks between America and the Philippines on increased U.S. military rotations and access to bases, Senate President Franklin Drilon said: “As a senator, it is my obligation to our people to ensure that any agreement the government will enter into is legal and in accordance with our Constitution. I will examine the outcome of the negotiations to see to it that it will not infringe on the lives of our people and their guaranteed rights.”
In sum, Washington’s plan to expand military deployment under its Pivot to Asia, poses a far greater danger to Philippine security than high-seas posturing in faraway islets and shoals. Hence, the national leadership must consider other ways of addressing Beijing’s actions which would not put the nation in the PLA’s missile sights and push the Chinese navy to match the Seventh Fleet by expanding in the South China Sea.
In his October 2012 talk on maritime issues at the Ateneo de Manila University’s 10th Jaime V. Ongpin Memorial Lecture, law professor Dr. Jay Batongbacal urged greater collaboration among countries to address concerns on the high seas, including joint exploration and exploitation of ocean resources. In fact, that had been the policy in the past administration, which not only kept territorial frictions down, but also opened the door to economic gains for the Philippines.
Joint projects serve to restrain China from aggressive moves, while putting the Philippines in a position to protest such actions. Collaborations like the 2007 joint seismic study by Chinese, Philippine and Vietnamese state oil companies, also open up areas for economic exploitation, rather than making them too volatile for business.
The strategy also reduces tensions across the region by downplaying territorial claims in favor of mutual gains. That can only be a relief to ASEAN.
Perhaps the only nation unhappy with such a policy is the United States. Back in 2007, the American Embassy criticized the joint seismic survey project, prompting then President Gloria Arroyo to complain to then President George W. Bush. And after discussing joint exploration during his China visit in August 2011, President Aquino dropped the idea after his U.S. trip the following month.
Plainly, if PNoy wants to reduce threats against the Philippines and begin harnessing marine resources without investment-killing risk, he must look again at joint exploration and think very hard about U.S. military expansion in the country. Then the DFA will not have to make up excuses why he and the Philippines are being shut out of Asia’s growth engine for the next half-century.