A daily explanation of what matters and what doesn't in the world of geopolitics.
Feb. 24, 2017
By Jacob L. Shapiro
The honeymoon phase of the Philippines' opening to China is over.
commerce minister canceled a planned trip to the Philippines on Feb. 23
after only informing Philippine officials about the cancellation the
previous afternoon. Unnamed sources at the Philippine trade and finance
ministries told Reuters that China canceled the visit because of the
Philippine foreign minister’s critical comments about China at an ASEAN
meeting on Feb. 21. China’s foreign minister told reporters in Beijing
that the meeting simply had been postponed, not canceled, and that
preparations to execute previously negotiated economic deals between the
two countries were continuing. China’s foreign minister, however, also
made a point of describing his Philippine counterpart’s remarks as
“baffling and regrettable.”
President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, the Philippines has maintained
an unprecedentedly open stance toward cooperation – and even alliance –
with China. This openness was punctuated by Duterte’s visit to China in
October 2016, where he agreed to many deals concerning economic
development (Chinese investment in the Philippines) and proclaimed a
Philippine “separation” from the United States. The honeymoon phase
turned out to be very short. The investment checks have not been written
or cashed, but merely promised. The Philippines sent a note of
diplomatic protest to China in January over Chinese moves in the South China Sea.
The Philippine defense minister said in January that China’s activities
in the South China Sea were “very troubling.” In other words, the Philippines has been cultivating a position of strategic ambiguity when it comes to its relationship with China.
Vice-Premier Zhang Gaoli, right, walks past Philippine President
Rodrigo Duterte in a file photo from the Philippines-China Trade and
Investment Forum at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on Oct. 20,
2016. WU HONG/AFP/Getty Images
China, however, ambiguity was a step up from antagonism. It also
represented an extremely important opportunity China could not pass up.
The entire clamor about China building facilities in the South China Sea
misses the fact that these installations are for defensive – not
offensive – purposes. The various islands and reefs China is reclaiming
cannot even hold strategically significant amounts of weapons and
materiel and are easy targets for foreign missile strikes. Not to
mention that high tide is as potent as an enemy’s air force.
A potential alliance with the Philippines,
however, is another thing entirely. First, it would eliminate a key
U.S. ally in the region. Second, if the Philippines were willing to host
Chinese forces, it would give China its first real strategic foothold
in the region. This is why China would be willing to pony up almost 20
percent of its annual foreign direct investment to all countries in the
world in just one set of agreements with the Philippines in return for a
better relationship. Flipping the Philippines from enemy to ally would
be far more consequential than any Chinese island-building activity or
rudimentary aircraft carriers put to sea with fanfare disproportionate
to their capabilities.
potential importance of this relationship means China is willing to go
to great lengths to secure the relationship, including offering the
Philippines significant amounts of economic development or accepting
Philippine ambiguity on its strategic relations. But the Feb. 21
incident at the ASEAN foreign ministers’ meeting was a bridge too far.
China is upset about this incident because of the context in which the
Philippine foreign minister’s criticism was proffered. The Philippine
foreign minister spoke to reporters after the ASEAN meeting concluded.
In his public remarks, the minister made a point of singling out China’s
moves as “unsettling” and encouraging militarization of the region, and
said that he spoke for all the foreign ministers in attendance.
was much different than the official ASEAN statement released after the
meeting, which contained no revelations. What was new was the
Philippines publicly criticizing China and insisting that there had been
unanimity at ASEAN over dissatisfaction with Chinese aggression. In
upbraiding the Philippines for these remarks, China’s foreign minister
made a point of mentioning that China and the Philippines had agreed to
work out such issues bilaterally. China’s insistence on bilateral
relations with South China Sea claimants is a euphemism for “divide and
conquer.” None of the claimants in the South China Sea can stand up to
the Chinese military or economic influence. But if all the countries
banded together against China, it would significantly curtail China’s
key question lurking behind all of this: Why did the Philippines decide
to do this now? On the surface, it is even stranger considering that
Duterte had a meeting with an International Department of the Communist
Party of China delegation on Feb. 20 that, by all accounts, was pleasant
and in line with improving Chinese-Philippine ties. The Philippines
knew what it was doing by criticizing China in the manner that it did,
and understanding the reason behind the Philippine move is key to
understanding the future of both U.S.-Philippine and Chinese-Philippine
answer to this question has three distinct levels. At the public level,
it is not a coincidence that U.S. officials leaked a story to Reuters
the day after the Philippine foreign minister made his statement. The
leak said that China has almost finished several structures meant to
store long-range surface-to-air missiles on Subi, Mischief and Fiery
Cross reefs in the Spratly Islands chain. It is a fair inference that
the U.S. shared this intelligence with the Philippines before it was
leaked and that there was more to share than what has appeared so far in
the media. That the Philippine foreign minister doubled down on his
statements on Feb. 23 and made specific mention of Scarborough Shoal,
which has been a major bone of contention between China and the
Philippines since a standoff there in April 2012, is further evidence of
a level deeper and the answer likely has more to do with political
pressure applied behind the scenes by both the United States and Japan
on the Philippines. The U.S. provides the Philippines with its defense.
The U.S. is also a major trading partner and source of foreign
investment in the Philippines. The U.S. does not want the Philippines
messing around with China. The U.S. has likely made this clear, and can
tacitly offer things Duterte wants like more U.S. investment, less
condemnation of his domestic policies and more active defense of
Philippine interests in the South China Sea. Japan is also a major
investor in the Philippines. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited
Manila in January – the first visit by any head of state to the
Philippines under the Duterte administration. The U.S. and Japan can
tolerate flirtation with China. But they also can remind the Philippines
of how much is at stake if the Philippines were to follow through on
some of Duterte’s most extreme public statements.
the geopolitical level, there is the simple fact that China and the
Philippines claim parts of each other’s territory as their own and
neither side can give up those claims. For the Philippines, giving up
territorial claims for the benefits of an alliance with China makes
little sense. Money can be secured elsewhere. More powerful allies
concerned with defending the Philippines rather than taking Philippine
territory are readily available. China giving up some of its claims for
the sake of an alliance makes more sense, but nationalism is a crucial
part of the legitimacy of the regime, and every Chinese grade school
student learns that everything within the “nine-dash line” is China’s.
China giving up on those claims would make both the regime and President
Xi Jinping appear very weak, which for many reasons is not something
China’s ruling class can afford right now.
The Philippines has its problems with the U.S., not least of which is the serious baggage of U.S. imperial rule.
But the U.S. is more powerful than China, located 8,000 miles away and
interested in maintaining the status quo, which by extension means
maintaining Philippine territorial integrity. That makes the U.S. the
superior partner for the Philippines no matter how mercurial the president in Manila seems.
Like all countries, the Philippines would prefer more independence in
its foreign policy decisions. Cultivating the relationship with China is
a good play to increase Philippine leverage with its current allies.
But there are limits to how far this can go, and the sudden cancellation
of a Chinese commerce minister’s visit to the Philippines reveals one
of the boundaries.
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.
DISCLAIMER - We do not own or claim any rights to the articles presented in this blog. They are for information and reference only for whatever it's worth. They are copyrighted to their rightful owners.
Please listen in to Erick San Juan's daily radio program which is aired through DWSS 1494khz AM @ 5:30pm, Mondays through Fridays, R.P. time, with broadcast title, “WHISTLEBLOWER” the broadcast tackle current issues, breaking news, commentaries and analyses of various events of political and social significance.