Calming of the South China Sea
THE high-profile visit of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to China earlier this month that culminated in Sino-Filipino ties being renewed after a five-year hiatus augurs well for Asean and the South China Sea, according to analysts.
It has an immediate stabilising effect in the South China Sea region and Duterte could be a model for others to emulate.
But the United States and Japan, whose security planning in the Asia Pacific has been jolted by this unexpected new alignment, are worried and are likely to persuade Manila not to give up on its “legal claim” for part of the South China Sea.
The 71-year-old Duterte, who has been blasting the United States in recent weeks, has repeatedly said he wants to pursue an independent foreign policy.
On the back of this new development, maritime disputes with China over the South China Sea are likely to soften for a while, especially as other Asean claimants may follow Manila’s pragmatic style in pushing for economic cooperation rather than confrontation.
“President Duterte’s visit is meaningful in the context of the Philippines and Asean.
“The tension level in the South China Sea is much lessened now, though not totally eliminated because the fundamental problems are still there,” says former Malaysian Ambassador to China Datuk Abdul Majid Ahmad Khan.
“The atmosphere is less toxic now. South China Sea claimants will go back to dialogues after realising that dialogues will be more useful. Hence, the Asean grouping will be stronger,” says Abdul Majid in a telephone interview with Sunday Star.
Dr Ngeow Chow Bing, deputy director of the Institute of China Studies at Universiti Malaya, feels that Duterte’s turnaround will help narrow differences within Asean, which is good for Asean’s unity.
“For other South China Sea claimants, probably they are not going to rock the boat at the moment.
“Given the greatest adversaries (China and the Philippines) have mended ties, now is not the time for any party – including China – to push and press their claims again,” Ngeow tells Sunday Star.
“It should also be the time that all parties have renewed confidence in the DOC (Declaration on the Conduct of Parties) and the COC (Code of Conduct),” he adds.
The DOC, signed in 2002, is meant to build greater trust between the South China Sea claimant states and prevent disputes from escalating.
It serves as a reference point for the COC that Asean and China are expected to sign next year.
Manila looks East
In 2012, Beijing-Manila relations soured after China dislodged the Philippine navy from the Scarborough Shoal, just over 200km from the Philippines proper.
China has claimed sovereignty over most of South China Sea waters based mainly on historical reasons. Other claimants of the waters include Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
Apart from having rich oil and mineral deposits, this waterway is an important shipping route that sees goods worth US$5.3tril (RM22tril) passing through it annually. And out of this, US$4tril (RM16.8tril) of trade is linked to China.
At the instigation of the United States, previous Philippine president Benigno S. Aquino III filed a complaint against China. On July 12 this year, an international tribunal at The Hague ruled there was no legal basis for Beijing’s maritime claims. The tribunal dismissed China’s vast claims in these vital waters.
This infuriated China, and it ignored the verdict. Tensions in the South China Sea immediately heightened that month after China announced it would build up a military presence on some islands, and the United States and its ally, Japan, increased their naval patrols and joint military exercises.
But for this pluckiness, the Philippine economy suffered. China has excluded Manila from its aggressive investment strategy in the region. Its multibillion-dollar regional investments have gone to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
Duterte has witnessed the rest of the region along the belt-road route being showered with Chinese largesse since 2013.
And China’s rich tourists – who have boosted tourism in South Korea, Japan, Thailand and Malaysia – had previously been advised to stay away from Manila.
But things began to look up after Duterte, who came to power in June, adopted a softer tone towards China.
“Duterte’s turnaround was already beginning to be felt in the Asean meetings after July 12. The Philippines did not push strongly for the inclusion of the arbitration in Asean’s documents at either the Asean Foreign Ministers’ meetings in late July or the Asean Summit in early September,” observes Ngeow.
The colourful Duterte, who has declared he is a socialist, has emphasised he wants economic cooperation with China so that his country’s nearly 100 million people – most of whom are poor, with many having to go overseas work – can benefit.
He has complained that the United States, an ally for 70 years, has done little to uplift his country’s economic well-being.
And when US leaders and officials recently criticised him for his war against drug traffickers and extra-judicial killings, the acid-tongued president responded with a tirade of anti-US rhetoric.
The unpredictable leader told China’s Xinhua News Agency on the eve of his visit to Beijing: “China’s generosity to poor countries is without reproach” and “it’s only China that can help us”.
Deterte, who said his grandfather was from China, got what he wanted from his trip. China lifted the ban on the import of banana and other fruits from Manila.
Manila was promised multibillion-dollar soft loans, aid to build roads and railways, a return of Chinese tourists, and talks on the return of Filipinos to fishing grounds at the Scarborough Shoal.
Good news for China
For the Chinese, the renewal of ties with Manila was a huge, unexpected gift from Duterte. His visit – which was treated as world news by the West – was accorded an “exceptionally warm reception”, according to a commentator on CCTV, China’s official television network.
Chinese President Xi Jingping welcomed Duterte with full military honours at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Oct 20.
“Having Manila as a friendly neighbour will tilt the ‘Asia Pivot’ of the US, which has counted heavily on Manila to counter the influence of China in the region. This is good news for us, but bad news for the United States,” said the CCTV commentator.
In addition, Duterte’s move to play down the tribunal award during his visit might discourage other Asean members from adopting a confrontational attitude towards China, he added.
Why did the West pay so much attention to this news? The key reason was stated in an article in The Economist magazine: “Rub your eyes: America’s strongest ally in South-East Asia appears to be plopping like a ripe mango into China’s hands.”
Says Ngeow: “For China, Duterte’s administration must be terrific good news – something barely thinkable just a couple of months ago.
“Whether Duterte’s foreign policy change is sustainable remains to be seen, but if China cooperates well with Duterte, the change might be sustainable and long-term, and this will be one of the most remarkable realignments in international politics.”
Although the Philippine president still enjoys an extremely high level of popularity among his people after this policy shift, it is unclear whether he can control and direct the overall policy of the Philippines.
According to reports, some 80% of Filipinos are said to be pro-American.
And due to the enemies he has created in his anti-drug crusade that has reportedly resulted in the death of over 2,000 people, Duterte himself has said in jest he is not sure how long he will survive.
“I see Duterte as doing what is best for his country and the people. Economic development, and not confrontation, is important for his country now,” says Abdul Majid, now the president of the Malaysia-China Friendship Association.
US, Japan in the way
“But the US and Japan, which have been close allies of the Phillipines for so long, will not sit still,” adds Abdul Majid.
He was right. Just after Duterte’ visit to China, US assistant secretary of state Daniel Russel flew to Manila to seek clarification on Duterte’s shocking statement in Beijing that he wanted “separation from the United States”.
Although the Filippine leader softened his tone and said Manila would still treat the United States as an ally, he repeated that he wished to see an end to joint military exercises with the United States and the presence of foreign troops in his country.
Duterte’s pro-China stance is causing the United States and Japan much discomfort because it means a major component of their security planning in the Asia Pacific may disappear, Ngeow points out.
The Philippines has a defence treaty with the United States and defence agreements that allow US troops to conduct joint exercises with Philippine troops. In 2014, Manila inked a pact with Washington granting US troops access to Philippine military bases.
“I want an independent policy and I will not kowtow to anybody,” Duterte reiterated before he left for Japan for an official visit last week.
Tokyo, wary of China’s rising influence, also wanted a clarification from Duterte about his foreign policy. Japan is Manila’s largest trading partner.
As though competing with China, Japan promised to give US$2bil (RM8.2bil) to help the Philippines build rail lines during Duterte’s visit there last Wednesday and Thursday.
Japan, the largest investor in the Philippines, has provided patrol boats to support Manila in the latter’s row with Beijing over its South China Sea claims.
And while in Japan, the volatile Duterte assured Japan that his visit to China was about economics not security, and vowed to stand by Tokyo’s side over South China Sea disputes when the time came.
Comfortable with China
Indeed, before the United States started its Asia Pivot rebalancing exercise in 2009 under the pretext of protecting freedom of water passage in the South China Sea, this region was relatively calm despite territorial disputes, according to an Asean observer who declines to be named.
“To increase its dominance in the Asia-Pacific region in the face of China’s rise as an economic power and its increasing influence, the US has since 2009 began a rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific to contain China’s rise,” says the observer.
And in this exercise, the United States found a close ally in Japan, which has its own disputes with China. Since then, both countries have been carrying out provocative acts in the South China Sea, he adds.
Only with a tense situation in the South China Sea is the United States’ (and Japan’s) larger security presence in the area justified, Ngeow agrees.
One of the provocative arguments put forward by the United States is that China is a threat because of its increased military spending and its declaration of a no-fly zone over the East Asia Sea around Diaoyu Islands after Japan allowed a group of its citizens to claim sovereignty rights over one of the disputed islands.
“To China, the United States’ rebalancing policy and other provocative acts are merely part of the plot with Japan to contain China in all aspects of her developments, economic and military. The United States is worried that a stronger China will be a challenge to US supremacy in the world, although it knows that China is still lagging behind,” says the Asean observer.
Many analysts agree the US claim that China poses a threat is baseless.
“While the United States has military bases all over the world, including in Japan, the Philippines, Singapore and Australia, and it is now working its way towards another one in Vietnam, China has none outside its country,” the observer argues.
In response to Sino-US rivalry, most Asean countries have adopted the balancing strategy of establishing economic ties with China while maintaining security ties with the United States, says Dr Syed Mahmud Ali, an expert on US-China relations.
Asean appears to welcome the US presence in the region, but not to the extent that it becomes a cause of instability, he adds.
“And in this balancing act, Malaysia has done very well – the best in Asean. Its pragmatic pro-China policy has helped to lure vast Chinese investments that are helping its economy now,” the academic added at a talk on Oct 20 at Universiti Malaya.
In general, Asean nations are comfortable with dealing with China as it has maintained its non-interference stance in the internal affairs of countries.
In contrast, the United States is seen as “a bully” meddling in the internal affairs of nations, invading countries and getting entangled in regional wars and conflicts.
What the future holds
But how long can Asean continue with this balancing strategy?
“It’s going to remain fluid, with each acting to advance their own or protect their own interest,” Dr Syed Mahmud feels.
While the United States views China as an emerging threat, it has built up a symbiotic relationship with China in finance, trade and investments.
Indeed, China – in which almost all major US corporations have huge investments – is the largest holder of US treasury, or government bonds.
“Nobody – including the United States – wants to see China experiencing an economic slowdown. This is because it will affect the United States and the whole world,” says Dr Syed Mahmud.
“And I don’t think it is in the interest of either country to go to war. So the status quo may stay,” he says.
Abdul Majid agrees: “The two superpowers – the United States and China – will continue to prevail in this region.”