Dr. Renato de Castro, Trustee and Convenor of the National Security and East Asian Affairs Program of the Stratbase ADR Institute
In August 2018, President Duterte conveyed to his countrymen that he expected China would be fair on the South China Sea dispute and that they should accept Beijing as a good neighbor. He told his fellow Filipinos: “I am sure that in the end, China will be fair and the equity will be distributed.” He predicted that “in the days to come, we would realize that China…is really a good neighbor.”
His (misplaced) good faith on China reflects his administration’s appeasement policy on the Asian power. President Duterte’s foreign policy pronouncements and actions are directed at undoing former president Benigno Aquino III’s agenda of balancing China’s extensive claim in the South China Sea. He distances the Philippines from its long-standing treaty ally and gravitates toward an emergent regional power bent on effecting a territorial reconfiguration in Asia. His foreign policy is aimed at appeasing China in sharp contrast to his predecessor’s balancing strategy. This stance is taken to earn China goodwill so that the Philippines could avail itself of the enormous Chinese resources under the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to finance the country’s major infrastructure projects.
From his administration’s calculation, the Philippines will benefit from the BRI particularly in the revival of the maritime silk route, as it dovetails with its plan for a massive infrastructure buildup. Its present scheme of sustained and inclusive economic growth is predicated on an unprecedented infrastructure program that entails some P8.4 trillion ($17 billion) over the next five years. The Duterte administration is eyeing a reasonable portion of the estimated $1 trillion that China will invest in infrastructure projects in 60 countries to develop land and maritime routes following the old Silk Road network that once linked China to Central Asia and Europe. Given this prospective economic windfall, the current administration believes that its appeasement policy toward China is worth pursuing.
Vietnam has always maintained its traditional wariness of China and recently, it has been the most vocal among the Southeast Asian countries in expressing its apprehension over Chinese expansionist design on the South China Sea. This stemmed from its long experience of challenging China’s imperial foray into Southeast Asia for the last two thousand years. In 2010, the Philippines became Vietnam’s closest partner and supporter among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in opposing China’s maritime expansion in the South China Sea. This is because of two reasons: unlike Vietnam, the Philippines has the strategic advantage of being a formal treaty ally of the United States, and it observed that two allies signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) in 2014. The agreement provides for the temporary deployments of American forces in five Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) air bases all over the country. And second, the Philippines filed a claim against China in the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in the Hague challenging China’s “nine-dash line” claim in the South China Sea. Fortunately, for both the Philippines and Vietnam, the PCA ruled that China’s historic claim has no legal basis under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The change in Philippine foreign policy under President Duterte was a major shock to Vietnam. First, President Duterte put aside the PCA ruling that invalidates China’s nine-dash line. Second, he distanced the Philippines away from the United States and in the process watered down the EDCA by shifting the alliance away from its focus on Chinese expansion in the South China Sea to counter-terrorism and Humanitarian Assistance and Risk Reduction (HADR). This was done with the expectation that the Philippines will be able to extract possible diplomatic concessions from China with regard to its territorial dispute and earn some economic largesse for its massive infrastructure projects.
President Duterte’s appeasement policy on China has off-balanced Vietnam’s efforts to challenge China’s expansion in the South China Sea. This became apparent during the 30th ASEAN Summit in Manila under the chairmanship of the Philippines. Vietnam fought tooth and nail to have the terms “concerns expressed by some ministers” on land reclamation and militarization in the South China Sea included in the chairman’s communique. Unfortunately, Vietnam failed to have the communique mention the need for a “legally binding” code of conduct in the disputed waters to put a stop to “unilateral actions.” Vietnam was also disappointed that there was no mention of the PCA ruling, and that the phase “serious concern” regarding the territorial dispute in the South China was conspicuously removed after it appeared in several ASEAN statements before 2017. Vietnam was suddenly confronted with the stark reality that the Philippines has joined Cambodia and Laos as China’s trusted and loyal lackeys in Southeast Asia.
FOSTERING VIETNAM-PHILIPPINE RELATIONS
Despite its disappointment with the Duterte administration’s appeasement policy on China, Vietnam has continued to foster closer relations with the Philippines. In October, on the sidelines of the ASEAN Leaders Gathering in Bali Indonesia, Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc met President Duterte to discuss the Vietnam-Philippines action plan for 2018-2023 in order to facilitate the two countries’ bilateral cooperation. The two ASEAN leaders also agreed to intensify their affiliation within ASEAN and affirmed the importance of maintaining regional peace, stability, freedom of aviation and navigation in the East Sea/West Philippines Sea. They also agreed to resolve territorial disputes peacefully according to international law including the 1982 UNCLOS and reiterated their support for the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Code of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), and the early completion of an effective, practical and legally binding Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).
Vietnam also proposed to the Philippines the need to delineate their maritime boundaries in the disputed South China Sea. Efforts by the two countries to define their maritime boundaries will have a significant implication in the South China Sea dispute because this means that the smaller claimant states can settle their overlapping claims, while China has not clearly defined its expansive and sweeping claims in the disputed waters. Unfortunately, showing sensitivity to China’s interests, the Philippines turned down the Vietnamese proposal by stating that it will take a longer time to establish its own continental shelf limits. Nevertheless, the bilateral meeting between Prime Minister Phuc and President Duterte last October showed that Vietnam still considers the Philippines a close partner, and it is still willing to advance the strategic partnership between the two Southeast Asian countries despite the Philippine-China rapprochement.
This article was originally published in BusinessWorld.