Nov 23, 2012

Philippines - Manila eyes new South China Sea horizon

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In what appears to be a conscious effort to mend increasingly frayed relations with Beijing, the Aquino administration has been, in recent months, trying hard to restore a semblance of normality in bilateral ties.

Cognizant of China's growing economic and political clout - most visible in the Southeast Asian region, where China is the region's biggest trading partner - and immense sensitivity to increasingly revitalized Philippine-US military relations, Manila has engaged a cocktail of strategies to calm Chinese nerves, prevent a disastrous diplomatic-economic fallout, and set the stage for a more cooperative relationship with the new leadership.

Meanwhile, President Obama's decision to skip the Philippines (again) in his current Asian visit has added a greater element of urgency to restoring Philippine-China ties. Surely, as Manila laments Washington's diplomatic snub amid such a sensitive period in Sino-Filipino relations, it finds greater rationale to de-escalate territorial tensions.

Taking China's threats seriously

The Aquino administration's strategic calculus is hinged on an assumption that as long as territorial tensions are kept below a specific threshold, with America's (unfolding) pivot serving as an implicit deterrent, it is always possible to cajole China into an amicable settlement over disputed territories - allowing both sides to save face and irreversibly shun direct confrontation.

In Manila's estimation, the tipping point was reached somewhere around April this year, when both sides teetered on the verge of military confrontation, as they squared off over the Scarborough Shoal. However, since then Manila has taken a more cautious and increasingly conciliatory approach for two reasons.

First, a sober appreciation of China's highly sensitive domestic political environment: with communism losing its ideological appeal, it's popular nationalism that has gripped the nation, acting as a political glue that binds an anxious communist party with an increasingly restive society.

Watching China's aggressive showdown with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea in recent months, Manila has recognized the depth of Beijing's domestic dilemma: Despite the need for maintaining strong economic relations with neighboring countries, especially to sustain the current pace of growth, the Chinese leadership could (or perceives to) face a more severe domestic political backlash if it is seen as diffident over its territorial claims - so embedded in Chinese psyche - in adjacent waters. This is precisely why the Chinese leadership has tolerated - if not partly encouraged - massive protests against Japanese interests in recent months, despite the tremendous associated (diplomatic and economic) costs.

Second, an anxious observation of America's equivocations in terms of providing direct support to both the Philippines and Japan at the height of recent territorial spats with China in the South and East China Seas. In Philippines' view, a provoked China might not hesitate to throw its weight around the South China Sea disputes, even in the absence of long-standing historical enmity - like those against imperial Japan - between Beijing and Southeast Asian states such as the Philippines. A lack of unconditional commitment by the United States to the protection of its regional allies has only exacerbated the matter.

China has already been sending ominous signals to the US's regional allies. Influential elements within the Chinese leadership, especially the People's Liberation Army (PLA), have regularly branded - through open statements in major Chinese newspapers - the likes of the Philippines and Vietnam as agent provocateurs, who are said to be fanning Sino-American tensions amid Washington's pivots to the Asia-Pacific theater.

Earlier this year, the Global Times called for "economic sanctions", blaming the Philippines for stoking tensions in Sino-American relations, while the Liberation Army Daily accused the Philippines of hiding behind America's skirt by stating, "The United States' shift in strategic focus to the east and its entry into the South China Sea issue has provided the Philippines with room for strategic maneuver, and to certain extent increased the Philippines' chips to play against us, emboldening them to take a risky course."

Restoring balance

Since 2010, Sino-Filipino relations have been progressively undermined by a bitter territorial conflict over a host of features in the South China Sea (or 'West Philippine Sea' in Manila's diplomatic lexicon). The deterioration in bilateral ties has come against the backdrop of booming diplomatic and economic relations, especially during President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo's administration (2001-2009).

What the Aquino administration hopes to achieve is to revitalize bilateral ties to (a) sustain a rowing economic partnership and (b) avoid direct confrontation; but, at the same time, he wishes not to jeopardize his fiercely assertive (if not populist) stance over Philippines' territorial claims.

In mid-October, just weeks before Xi Jinping's ascent to the helm of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), President Aquino, in a press conference with international media, expressed his optimism in restoring bilateral ties by stating, "There seems to be a gradual, very gradual, warming up [in Sino-Philippine ties] - I want to be very precise. So we are hopeful that this gradual warming up will be really warmed up by the time of the transition. So we are taking a wait-and-see attitude."

Recognizing the complexities of China's "domestic pressures", he implored Beijing to show more flexibility in their approach by emphasizing, "[though] there will be pressures leading up to the transition, we hope that these domestic pressures in China will be lessened after the transition so that we can have more room to negotiate and to discuss in more reasonable terms and less ultra-nationalistic [author's own emphasis] tones."

Aquino hinted at how Beijing's foreign posturing is entangled by the trappings of growing popular nationalism among the populace - a worrying policy handicap, which has limited China's strategic wiggle room for dialogue and compromise over territorial disputes in adjacent waters. The Philippines' hope is for the new leadership to transcend these limitations and prioritize a rational pursuit of interests within the broader international system.

Aquino made his statements just days before much-anticipated top-level bilateral talks between the two country's deputy foreign ministers, the so-called Foreign Ministry Consultations (FMC). Reciprocating the Filipino leaders' encouraging remarks, the Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei stated, "China and the Philippines are important neighbors to each other, China attaches importance to China-Philippine relations, and is willing to push forward a healthy and stable bilateral relationship."

The October FMC was extremely crucial, because it broke a long period of de facto bilateral diplomatic hiatus, with the previous FMC held as far back as January (just four months before the flaring up of tensions over the Scarborough Shoal) and a number of bilateral dialogues and cultural events cancelled due to heightening Sino-Filipino tensions.

Room for cautious optimism

Beijing's "October surprise", the well-handled FMC exchanges with Filipino counterparts, proved largely a success for a number of reasons.

First, the Chinese envoy was led by Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying, who - as the former ambassador to the Philippines (1992-2000) - has been largely familiar with both the Philippines' political landscape as well as its top leadership.

Second, Fu chose to also meet Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario, who has had a particularly difficult relationship with the Chinese negotiators in the past few months. Back in June, President Aquino sanctioned an attempt by an up-and-coming Senator Trillanes to pursue backdoor negotiations with China. The whole episode proved to not only undercut Del Rosario's function as the foreign policy chief, but it also exposed Beijing's dismay with him.

According to some commentators, Chinese diplomats preferred Trillanes as an interlocutor, because they saw Del Rosario as the chief architect of the revitalization in Philippine-American military alliance, obviously at China's expense. Fu's decision to meet Del Rosario served as an opportunity for China to mend ties with Del Rosario, restore channels of communication, and signal its willingness to negotiate with him on a more amicable and institutionalized basis.

Third, the Chinese envoy expanded its charm-offensive towards the Filipino leadership by also meeting with leading legislators, most especially the influential Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, who has been behind a vitriolic criticism of the Trillanes-led backdoor negotiations. Although claiming that he did not touch on sensitive issues in his conversations with the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister, Enrile described his meeting with Fu in an affectionate and upbeat manner - suggesting some good bilateral report between major figures in both countries.

"She just paid me a visit because she's my friend. She has been my friend when she was here," Enrile told the media about his meeting with the Chinese diplomat. "She used to come to my office to talk to me about some problems then of China, especially when [senators] were discussing the Visiting Forces Agreement with the United States. [Fu will] understand that I am serving my country and not anybody else in the same way that I would understand she's serving her country and nobody else."

It is far from certain whether the new Chinese leadership under Xi Jingping will ever contemplate a softer stance on its territorial claims in the South China Sea, but what is clear is that both sides are interested in preventing a direct confrontation and/or a major diplomatic fall out over ongoing territorial disputes, without backing off from their populist territorial position.

It's a tough balancing act, which will require both strategic foresight and some luck. In the end, depending on the trajectory of regional territorial tensions and the sincerity of America's pivot, the Philippines might be pushed to throw in its lot with either the Americans or the Chinese, which is precisely what most regional leaders are trying to avoid.

Richard Javad Heydarian

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