A daily explanation of what matters and what doesn't in the world of geopolitics.
March 10, 2017
By Jacob L. Shapiro
China and a Philippine Foreign Secretary’s Ouster The South China Sea is a sideshow.
Philippines Commission on Appointments (CA) rejected the reappointment
of Philippines Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. on March 8. This is
the same Philippine official who made waves three weeks ago
when, after a meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers, he publicly
criticized China’s moves in the South China Sea. At the time, China was
highly critical of Yasay’s comments, with a Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman calling them “baffling and regrettable.” The spokesman urged
Yasay to follow the path of relations that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping had outlined during Duterte’s October visit to Beijing. Yasay now finds himself without a job.
This is the latest episode of an issue that is not expected to disappear
over the next few years. China is too militarily weak and economically
vulnerable to engage in fighting in its near abroad with the United
States and its allies Japan and South Korea. China’s best strategic
option is to change the balance of power in the Pacific or in Southeast
Asia, either by developing closer relationships with key countries there
or destabilizing their domestic politics. Two countries China is
focusing on are Myanmar and the Philippines. Earlier this week,
Chinese-backed rebels in Myanmar resumed a new round of attacks in the
country, frustrating Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace initiatives. Yasay’s rejection comes only a few days after that.
Chinese influence in the rebuff of Yasay must begin with a caveat: It
could have more to do with domestic Philippine political issues than
with China’s influence. The Commission on Appointments is responsible
for approving all heads of executive departments, ambassadors, armed
forces officers and a range of other positions. The confirmation process
itself is often inefficient and serpentine. It is not uncommon for the
CA to take years to confirm Cabinet members. In 2014, for example, three
Cabinet-level officials were confirmed after already having served four
years in their positions. What is unusual in Yasay’s case is that the
CA quickly and decisively moved to reject his reappointment.
Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. speaks at a forum at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.,
on Sept. 15, 2016. ZACH GIBSON/AFP/Getty Images
Yasay also was caught red-handed in a lie.
The former foreign secretary said he had never held U.S. citizenship or
a U.S. passport, but he was granted U.S. citizenship in 1986, had held a
U.S. passport, and only renounced his U.S. citizenship last June – two
days after he was nominated for the post. The 15-person commission
unanimously decided to reject Yasay, and Duterte already has nominated a
new official to replace him.
are too many coincidences to conclude the analysis here. First, on
March 6, the Philippines and China revived the Joint Commission on
Economic and Trade Cooperation, which had not met for five years due to
territorial disputes between the two countries. On March 7, the day
before Yasay’s rebuff, Chinese and Philippine trade officials announced
China intended to finance at least three infrastructure projects in the
Philippines worth $3.4 billion. China also reportedly agreed during the
commission’s meeting to purchase $1 billion of Philippine agricultural
products this year. Yasay’s comments at ASEAN last month resulted in the
cancellation of a visit by China’s commerce minister to Manila to sign
economic agreements. Injecting new life into those deals the day before
Yasay’s downfall was fortuitous timing.
issue goes beyond the announcement of a few economic promises (the word
deal should be reserved for when the checks actually clear). Duterte
has been relatively quiet on the issue of China-Philippines relations in
recent months. If anything, his attitude toward China has been
ambiguous at best. Duterte made no prominent statements after the ASEAN
incident, which is strange for a leader with a demonstrated penchant for
controversial sound bites. He also hosted Japanese Prime Minister
Shinzo Abe in January, the first foreign leader to visit him in Manila.
The two sides agreed to a number of aid and investment deals. Duterte
broke his silence on March 8 during a speech at the 10th Philippine
Councilors League National Congress, where he profusely thanked China
“for loving us [the Philippines] and giving us enough leeway to survive
the rigors of economic life on this planet.”
the same day, China made a point of announcing that the first draft of a
Sino-ASEAN code of conduct had been completed after seven years of
abortive negotiations. The importance of this is not the draft itself,
details of which have not yet been released. The draft likely contains
little that will change the region’s balance of power. Many more drafts
will be completed and years of wrangling will ensue before anything is
actually signed, let alone put into practice in the South China Sea.
What is important is that China is touting the diplomatic role it has
played in writing this draft. It is doing so while the Philippines holds
the presidency of ASEAN. And China is trumpeting this diplomatic
success in the arena where Yasay publicly held China to the fire just a
few weeks ago. For good measure, China’s foreign minister also took the
opportunity to fire a diplomatic salvo at the United States over U.S.
freedom of navigation operations in “contested waters.”
is possible that all of this is just a coincidence, but coincidences
are rare in geopolitics. Yasay was considered close to Duterte, and the
two were roommates in law school. That Duterte was unable or unwilling
to save Yasay might be evidence of an internal power struggle in the
Philippines. For example, the Philippine defense minister has been
consistently skeptical of Duterte’s desire to move closer to China and
made comments to that effect on March 9. But the same day that Yasay’s
reappointment was rejected, Duterte made public remarks about China that
effectively repudiated Yasay’s position at the ASEAN meeting. It is
reasonable to conclude that Duterte either lost trust in his confidant,
did not sign off on Yasay’s comments at ASEAN, or had his hand forced by
the revelation of Yasay’s lie. The public coordination on announcing
new economic deals between the Philippines and China and China’s
opportunistic announcement of its diplomatic success at ASEAN also
suggest that China was ready to capitalize on Yasay’s fall from grace.
ouster does not change the region’s balance of power. There are still
limits to the Philippines’ ability to drift from the U.S., and to China’s capability of pulling the Philippines
into its orbit. Thinking about such a large shift in the balance of
power may be premature, anyway. China would love to flip the Philippines
into a potential ally. But short of that, provoking domestic
instability to disrupt the U.S.-Philippine relationship is a decent
consolation prize from Beijing’s point of view. The reality check is
this: Potential war in the South China Sea and the blowing winds of a
trade war are sideshows. The main arena where China can make moves is in
the domestic affairs of places like the Philippines. That makes a
foreign secretary candidate’s rejection in the Philippines a matter of
ROLAND SAN JUAN was a researcher, management consultant, inventor, a part time radio broadcaster and a publishing director. He died last November 25, 2008 after suffering a stroke. His staff will continue his unfinished work to inform the world of the untold truths. Please read Erick San Juan's articles at: ericksanjuan.blogspot.com This blog is dedicated to the late Max Soliven, a FILIPINO PATRIOT.
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