|Photo from South China Morning Post|
Commentary of an Academic
(Copyright @ 2018 by Chester B Cabalza. All Rights Reserved).
The suspension of work in the Philippines’ capital and the wreath laying ceremony to Filipinos’ national hero in Rizal Park quietly capture the warm welcome of President Rodrigo Duterte to his newly-found big brother President Xi Jinping to the Southeast Asian nation in his two-day state visit.
Doubts about the Chinese paramount leader’s stopover in sunny Manila after his weekend sterling attendance at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation at Port Moresby concluded without an agreed joint communiqué among world leaders in the Pacific Rim for the first time in its 25-year existence. Only recently the world also caught the attention of mercurial Filipino leader after skipping the regional summit dinner and excused himself in favour of a nap gate at the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Summit in Singapore.
Today’s Duterte-Xi expanded bilateral meeting reaffirms the deepening of a futureproof Philippines-China 2.0 relations profoundly dubbed as the “Rainbow after the Rain” state visit deliberately aimed at cementing the broken lines of good neighbourliness and friendship despite the untimely release of anti-Chinese sentiments published by a reputable poll in the Philippines before the red carpet rolled out for Xi Jinping expressing acceptable trust for the Americans than the Chinese. More so the arrival statement of Xi Jinping in Manila deeply reminds Beijing of its past sour relationship with the archipelagic country under Duterte’s predecessor after it won the 2016 arbitration case against China invalidating its maritime claims in the contested South China Sea.
Confident in displaying an eminent role in the region bolstered by clever economic packages through blurry Road Belt Initiative programs and leading a collective support to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, China has arrived intensifying its ability to weaponize small neighbours offering multi-billion dollar investment pledges under the mantle of economic security due to simmering US-China trade war. Meanwhile Filipino critics worry about China’s policy of appeasement over policy of economic opportunity to the Philippines undermined with cautious remarks from other Southeast Asian leaders about the debt trap fear a nation may encounter from signing dozens of juicy Chinese agreements.
Taking off from how China handles a crisis, this linguistic faux pas may signify clandestine connotations of a chance of “danger” and a possibility of “opportunity” that may illuminate Beijing’s treatment over Manila’s maritime entitlements in the West Philippine Sea. This despite the tough Chinese hatred by majority of Filipinos posting a mixed reaction to Xi’s official visit in Manila and discounting Duterte’s inaction to China’s intrusion in the disputed man-made islands recognizing the giant neighbour’s continuous militarization in the South China Sea.
The Philippines’ strategic role as a guinea pig for Chinese crisis management apparently bespeaks of the improving mutual understanding of former David and Goliath neighbours in seeking the best formula to reign in the sea of peace. Understandably, China’s burgeoning economic and trade relations with the Philippines can be viewed singularly but the volatility of the two nations’ defense and security relations over the skirmishes of maritime and territorial disputes in the South China Sea clearly present a multi-linear lens of how economy and security intercedes particularly when the pragmatic Filipino leader calibrated for soft-pedal on territorial disputes with his baffling rhetoric that China is already in possession of the contested waterway that elucidates a defeatist magniloquence of complete surrender of Manila’s claim over the West Philippine Sea.
The heavily debated Framework for Joint Exploration in the West Philippine Sea citing references from the October 2016 Joint Statement of China and the Philippines on joint exploration undersea and the November 2017 Mutual of Understanding on Energy Cooperation certainly differ from the 2004 Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking signed by the two sovereign states with Vietnam joining the tripartite agreement later on to explore the South China Sea for oil and natural gas. The agreement’s constitutionality ceased four years after the three maritime claimant-countries in the South China Sea inked such a ground-breaking cooperation before imploding into diplomatic and legal battles reaching an arbitration case in February 2013 against China while the Philippines reaped legal triumph in July 2016.
The Philippines’ hedging strategy in pursuit of economic dependence from China to finance robust infrastructure program should be dealt carefully. Manila now holds the key to decide wittingly as other major powers including the US and Japan continuously invest far more than China.
History teaches us the best lesson. This is the time that we should remember General Antonio Luna when the Philippines chose its destiny to ally with the Spaniards or the Americans. There’s a new power in town! China is a reality.
General Antonio Luna will ask you again, “Negosyo o Kalayaan? Bayan o Sarili?”