IN announcing the inclusion of the disputed territories issue in his Japan state visit agenda, President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd is again stirring the pot, so to speak. The apparent agitation seems unnecessary, and it is unclear what national interest it hopes to serve.
Note that the Aquino government’s approach to territorial disputes actually worsened the situation for the Philippines. Chinese expansion in the West Philippine Sea has accelerated, not slowed down, under President Aquino’s watch. Today, Filipino fishermen have even less access to fishing grounds than before, thanks to more harassment by Chinese warships. Also, tension in the region is rising as the United States beefs up its naval presence and steps up its rhetoric against China.
We can only hope that President Aquino has a rational endgame in mind. Is he instead expecting the Chinese to be intimidated by US naval presence around the disputed territories? The Chinese are more likely to harden their position, which threatens to spawn a new “cold war” against the US. We doubt that the Philippines is ready for something like that.
Is the Philippines hoping for a hot war between China and US over the disputed territories? We hope not, because when giants collide, little players like the Philippines risk being squashed. More formally, instability in the Asia Pacific would threaten economic development in the entire region, including the Philippines.
President Aquino is better off sticking to his economic agenda during his state visit. Rightly so, he will be appealing for more Japanese investments in the Philippines. We sense that some Japanese investors feel uneasy about doing business on the mainland because of their country’s own row with the Chinese. We wonder, though, if President Aquino thinks that engaging the Chinese in a verbal tussle will endear him to prospective Japanese investors. They are likely to give more weight to economic considerations and rates of return than to whatever posturing the President makes.
Even if President Aquino feels compelled to raise the issue during his meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, did he have to announce it? Surely, the Japanese have been alerted to the topics that President Aquino wishes to tackle with the premier. Does he think that his pre-departure statement will enhance the quality of his bilateral talks? Does President Aquino think that China will retreat from the West Philippine Sea upon hearing reports that Manila and Tokyo are joining forces against Beijing? Again, that would be improbable. The more likely outcome is that it would bolster the hawks in China and contribute to the further hardening of its stand.
Frankly, President Aquino’s pronouncements puzzle us. Clearly, he wants to assert the Philippine claims. But he should reflect on whether his efforts are actually working. It does not seem so.
To be clear, we support the Philippine claims against any foreign power. But we also believe that the disputed territories issue should not define our relations with China. We also believe that we have more to gain from befriending China than by antagonizing it unnecessarily and contributing to the escalation of tensions between the Chinese and Americans. Lastly, we believe in a peaceful resolution to the conflict through diplomacy. But for a peaceful and mutually beneficial resolution to be reached, President Aquino should first learn the proverb: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.”