The Eastern Phantom

Dindo Manhit, President of the Stratbase ADR Institute

Embarking upon a “China-friendly” stance in the disputed South China Sea is a big blunder from the start. Lessons on sovereignty and economic trappings are many, and they should not be disregarded. The Duterte presidency’s pivot toward or strategic realignment with China is not only problematic but dubious on several grounds as well.

First, the act of realizing a joint exploration project in the disputed waters under a bilateral agreement with China is politically and legally disgusting. One can simply ask the question: Why are we going to have a partnership with China in exploring the waters in our Exclusive Economic Zone?

The Hague ruling was clear; the historical right over the disputed territory cannot rightfully belong to China alone but to the nearby countries Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Further, our Constitution equally invalidates the conduct of joint development if such involves territories that fall within our EEC. Politically, a bilateral engagement with China even under a 60-40 sharing agreement simply spells outright capitulationism.

Another tricky situation is the reliance of the Duterte presidency on Chinese investments and loans to fund its Build Build Build program. Lest we forget, countries in Africa and Asia are now trapped with above-average debts under the Belt and Road Initiative strategy. On this note, Dr. Mahathir of Malaysia and other countries have either stopped or retreated from the implementation of Chinese projects.

For the Philippines, aside from the help that China has given for Marawi, the personal support of President Xi Jinping that President Duterte has flaunted, and the three trips in the past three years, much of the promised $24 billion in investments and loans have yet to materialize. As Carl Schuster highlighted in his article South China Sea End Game: Implications and Next Steps: “After 30-years of broken promises and misleading statements, countries can place little credence on Beijing’s promises.”

And in a sudden mood swing in August, President Duterte urged China to “rethink” and “temper its behavior” in the disputed South China Sea. However, the impending visit of China’s president or foreign minister could again alter his tone and translate it into a submissive reminder.

Third, the seemingly plausible way through this dispute is for the Duterte administration to indulge seriously into multilateral partnerships with the involved countries and external stakeholders. He should be conscious that the Philippines is the dialogue coordinator of the ASEAN-China Summit until 2021.

To start with, ASEAN could be the channel to forge a corporate partnership with other Southeast Asian countries in managing the South China Sea. In this way, China has to negotiate with many players and not dominate the bilateral relations with the Philippines.

Another step is the renewal of relationship with Washington. As stated by Patrick Cronin in his article Navigating a New Chapter in the US-Philippines “Long Friendship,” in promoting a rules-based order, “the United States must cast its objectives … against the more elemental challenges that stem terrorism, political violence, illegal trafficking, natural disasters, and other humanitarian crises.”

In Singapore, President Duterte pronounced that he will “at all cost” push for the creation and completion of a “Code of Conduct” to cool down the combustible situation in the disputed waterway. Through such conduct, bilateral and multilateral policies regarding protection, regulation, and the definition of trans-boundary security measures would become more achievable. As such, it likewise promotes a rules-based order.

Beijing, for instance, is also keen on seeing the implementation of the code in the next three years. However, the aggressiveness of the Chinese forces in “militarizing” the waterway and the projection of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership for next year pose serious intentions toward the regional domination of Asia.

A specter is haunting Southeast Asia—the specter of Chinese aggression.

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