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Description: Newly elected President Benigno Aquino III has called for amendments to the Visiting Forces Agreement, which permits and defines joint U.S.-Filipino military exercises. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)
The Philippines: China's Rise Challenges U.S. Influence
May 21, 2010 | From theTrumpet.com
China's charm offensive toward Manila undermines Washington's position as the Philippines' foremost security and economic partner. By Jeremiah Jacques
A shift has emerged in Manila's attitude toward the U.S. and toward China, which is fortified by Beijing's inroads into what has long been considered "the United States' backyard."
Like two men vying for the affections of the same woman, China and the U.S. compete for the dominant influence in the Philippines, the Pearl of the Orient. And as Washington grows complacent in its pursuit and distracted by other geopolitical pressures, Manila, with increasing consistency, welcomes Beijing's advances.
Edging Toward Beijing
Fifteen years ago, a Sino-Philippine strategic partnership seemed impossible. The two nations were mired in disputes over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, and Manila reacted to Beijing's obstinacy by shoring up its defense ties with Washington.
But, in 2002, Beijing signed the historic Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the Philippines is a core member. A year later, China signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia, which calls for greater political and economic cooperation in the region and forbids reverting to military force.
In 2004, the two nations signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation, and agreed on annual defense talks and joint military training. The same year, China gifted $6 million worth of military equipment to the Philippine Army.
During Chinese President Wen Jiabao's January 2007 visit to Manila, he and his Philippine counterpart declared that Sino-Philippine ties had attained a "golden age of partnership" as the two nations upgraded bilateral cooperation and dialogue on political and defense affairs.
Most recently, Beijing eased tensions with Manila over the long-simmering Spratly dispute when it agreed to abide by the UN Law of the Sea.
Bilateral ties have also flourished in the realm of trade and investment. Today, China is the Philippines' largest trading partner, and largest source of financing for energy, agriculture and infrastructure. These flourishing economic ties with Beijing will impede Manila's ability to open any new security initiatives with Washington which might be perceived as opposing Chinese strategic moves in the region.
Beijing's overtures to Manila are not going unnoticed among the people of the Philippines. In the past 12 months, the momentum has tilted the balance of popular opinion as Filipinos shift toward a more favorable perspective of China. In 2009, a majority of 52 percent of Filipinos held a negative view of China, but this number has dropped 21 points in the last 12 months. Now, a clear majority of 55 percent hold a positive view, which is up 16 points from the 2009 figure. At the same time, opposition to "U.S. imperialism" is growing among the populace.
Although resistance to U.S. military presence and Washington's hand in Manila's affairs is nothing new for certain segments of the Philippines' civil society, politicians have maintained a restrained official stance. But, recently, suggestions of dissatisfaction have bubbled to the surface.
Early Signs of Ebbing U.S. Relations
In July 2004, then President Gloria Arroyo withdrew Philippine troops from Iraq in exchange for the release of a kidnapped Philippine truck driver. Arroyo's concession to the demands of the terrorists rankled Washington and chilled U.S.-Philippine ties. In the aftermath of this withdrawal, it was Beijing's courtship that provided Manila with the vital diplomatic leverage it needed.
Benigno Aquino iii, elected Philippine president on May 10, has called for amendments to the Visiting Forces Agreement (vfa), which permits and defines joint U.S.-Philippine military exercises. Former President Joseph Estrada, who came in second in the election, had also called for a revision of the vfa. Though the politicians' specific requests about the agreement are minor, they reflect the trend in the Philippines toward a more assertive and independent stance in regard to its self-interest and sovereignty.
Ongoing uncertainty over the presence of U.S. military bases in Japan is only the most recent of reasons Washington values its current position as a dominant political and military influence in the Philippines. Because it is a location from which Chinese adventurism in Southeast Asia can be forestalled, a U.S. foothold in the Philippines is crucial for Washington. But as China's influence increases, American power in Asia stands challenged. Since World War ii, the U.S. has relied on Asian allies like the Philippines and Japan to stabilize the balance of power in Asia and the Pacific. But these partnerships are less reliable every month.
Distracted by pressures in the Middle East and elsewhere, Washington is neglecting relations with Asian nations like the Philippines—and Beijing is there to fill the void. Manila, long dependent on the U.S. for military and trade, is proceeding carefully in its interactions with Beijing and Washington. Tension between these two powers could force Manila into a decision it dreads: choosing a single suitor.
Will it be the proven security ally—or the newfound political and economic partner?
Expect anti-American grumbling among the Philippine populace and politicians to grow louder, rather than quieter, in the coming months and years. As China's soft-power diplomacy and hard-power buildup continue to solidify the Asian nations into a global power, America's influence in the region will steadily wane.
In the longer term, Asia's unification points to the approach of the most hope-filled event in history! To understand more about this sure hope, read Russia and China in Prophecy. •
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