Aquino rebalances his China position
By Richard Javad Heydarian
MANILA - After months of diplomatic confrontation, Philippine President Benigno Aquino is seeking to re-engage China by dialing down bilateral tensions and promoting the language of dialogue and cooperation. Significantly, the move comes in the wake of US President Barack Obama's recent cancellation of a scheduled tour of Asia, including a planned trip to Manila to hammer out a new bilateral security pact.
Downplaying local criticism of China's purported ambivalence towards reaching a multilateral resolution to the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea, Aquino has opted to welcome Beijing's agreement in principle to negotiate a binding code of
conduct (CoC) through the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Contradicting his own cabinet members, namely Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin, Aquino has vigorously denied earlier accusations that China has placed concrete blocks at the contested Scarborough Shoal, purportedly as a prelude to establishing military fortifications in the area.
At the same time, his government is conditionally supporting negotiations between major Filipino and Chinese companies to jointly develop hydrocarbon resources in the Reed Bank, a contested feature off the coast of the Philippines' island province of Palawan.
Since the formal announcement of the US's so-called "pivot" to Asia in late-2011, the Philippines has ever more confidently stepped up its efforts to defend its maritime territorial claims against China. In turn, Beijing has escalated its paramilitary maneuvers in the Western Pacific and largely shunned the negotiation of a CoC to govern the ongoing disputes. As tensions have spiked, Sino-Philippine relations have reached their lowest point in decades.
Until now, the Philippines' South China Sea policy has been largely determined by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), led by the energetic and sometimes controversial Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario. He has been praised domestically by increasingly nationalistic constituencies for his vigorous attempts to rally international support against China's rising assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario has also emerged as one of the more determined regional players, alongside leaders in Tokyo and Singapore, to welcome the larger American strategic footprint in Asia promised by the "pivot" policy. That has bestowed a measure of legitimacy to Washington's regional designs to redeploy as much as 60% of its naval assets to the region, but also opened Del Rosario to criticism in China and elsewhere that he is overtly pro-American and anti-China.
Many Filipinos support the government's attempts to push back against Chinese claims in the South China Sea, with civil society organizations staging increasingly larger rallies to express their solidarity with Filipino troops defending contested maritime features while branding China as a regional "bully". After decades of living in Washington's shadow, many nationalist figures who contributed to the eviction of US military bases in Subic and Clark in the immediate post-Cold War period now see a new opportunity to unify the country against China's perceived threat to Philippine territorial integrity.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), long ignored and underfunded by their political masters, now also has external justification to modernize deterrent capabilities and for a boost to annual budget allocations. Confronting China has paid considerable political dividends for Aquino, an often emotive "David vs Goliath" narrative that resonates deeply in the predominantly Catholic country. Critics, however, believe that the government’s current stance smacks of a moralistic battle devoid of calculated strategic thinking.
Beneath this emotionally charged surface, there is a vibrant debate - not least among top policy-makers, academics, and opinion-makers - over how best to defend the country's territorial integrity. For the critics of Aquino's current approach, the preferred policy, notwithstanding China's contribution to the militarization of the disputes, would have been much more cognizant of Beijing's strategic sensitivities and domestic political dynamics - from the rise of popular nationalism to the growing influence of hawkish elements within and associated with the People's Liberation Army's (PLA) Navy.
The alternative view - in contrast to the Del Rosario faction's emphasis on a combination of aggressive diplomacy and expanded military cooperation with strategic allies like the US and Japan - accentuates the importance of bilateral economic ties with China, the relative futility of the Philippines' legal challenge to Beijing's "9-dashline doctrine" at The Hague without a mechanism to enforce any verdict, and the counter-productive upshot of overreliance on foreign strategic allies.
For his critics, Del Rosario's assertive nationalism is laudable to the extent that it reflects the growing anxiety among many Filipinos vis-a-vis China. His stance, they believe, channels a popular exasperation with Beijing's apparent decision to undermine its decades-long "charm offensive" characterized by generous foreign aid and investment to regional countries for the marginal strategic advantage of exerting sovereignty over a group of uninhabited islands and rocks in the South China Sea.
The government's current approach, critics contend, has only served to embolden Chinese hawks to tighten the screws on Manila, step up military operations in the contested waters, and shun constructive diplomacy. At the same time, there is seemingly little evidence to suggest that either Washington or Tokyo will decisively come to the Philippines' rescue in the event of an armed confrontation with China over contested maritime territories.
Obama's absence at the recent Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and ASEAN summits has added momentum to local calls for re-engagement with China. The fourth round of Philippines-US negotiations in early October aimed at expanding Washington's rotational military presence in the country failed to provide a major breakthrough, with top Filipino negotiators pointing to "major gaps in the critical provisions" of the new proposed framework agreement.
"There's more work needed to be done on these provisions that will define this agreement. Both parties recognize that we have to work on them with more deliberation," said Defense Undersecretary Pio Lorenzo Batino after the inconclusive round of talks. Foreign Affairs Assistant Secretary Carlos Sorreta, the spokesperson of the Philippine negotiating panel, also noted a lack of agreement over "major details of the substantive issues", with the necessity to "make sure that this agreement would be mutually beneficial."
Although the exact details of the ongoing negotiations are unknown, with critics lambasting their lack of transparency and raising concerns about the constitutionality of the process, news reports have suggested that disagreements center on the nature and duration of "pre-positioning" of US defense equipment and "ownership" of the equipment to be prepositioned and proposed facilities to be installed by the US at Clark and Subic.
How American forces will specifically aid their Filipino counterparts in maritime defense activities in the South China Sea, the "added-value" of a new agreement beyond the Visiting Forces Agreement that already facilitates annual and sustained joint exercises, as well as what type of equipment may be leased to Filipino forces on a rotational basis, have all apparently vexed the negotiations. Obama's scheduled, then canceled, October 11-12 visit to Manila was supposed to iron out these substantial differences.
Treading a line between "assertive deterrence" and "pragmatic engagement", Aquino has frequently reconfigured Philippine foreign policy during his three years in office. From 2010-2011, Aquino empowered the Del Rosario faction to re-draw the DFA's China strategy, which was largely focused on enhancing bilateral trade and investment relations during the previous Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration.
When Filipino and Chinese forces squared off over the Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012, Aquino sanctioned "backdoor diplomacy" - effectively bypassing the DFA - to avoid a direct armed confrontation. When it became clear that China would not disengage from the contested shoal, Aquino shifted back into deterrence mode by supporting the DFA's push to step up defense cooperation with the US and file a formal legal complaint against China at the United Nations.
The policy motivated an outpouring of nationalistic support for a more assertive diplomacy but also resulted in deeper tensions in the South China Sea, with Beijing buttressing its military maneuvers in the contested areas and rebuking the Philippines' decision to seek international legal arbitration. Diplomatic channels effectively collapsed, with Chinese leaders refusing to meet their Filipino counterparts. Bilateral ties arguably hit a new nadir in August when Beijing withdrew an earlier invitation to Aquino to attend a China-hosted trade fair.
With stalled negotiations on a new security deal with the US and Obama's recent no-show in Manila, Aquino has sought to dial down tensions and explore alternative channels of cooperation with China. Most significantly, perhaps, his government is exploring the idea of joint development of certain energy-rich maritime areas it contests with China. Beijing has in recent weeks made similar joint development overtures towards Vietnam and Brunei.
The Philippine-owned Forum Energy and Chinese state-owned oil company China National Offshore Oil Corporation are now negotiating a joint-exploration venture in the hydrocarbon-rich Reed Bank, site to an estimated 16.6 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 416 million barrels of oil. The talks have provided Manila with an opportunity to re-open communication channels with Beijing and temporarily shelve sovereignty issues in order to purse mutual economic interests - injecting a constructive atmosphere into bilateral relations which will be crucial to any future territorial agreement.
With Washington driving a hard bargain on a new security pact, Aquino seems increasingly keen to engage rather than confront Beijing. China's growing regional prominence and America's perceived strategic absence has added urgency to a tactical reconsideration in Manila, especially as ASEAN focuses its attention on fostering economic ties and integration (rather than territorial disputes) with China. But as Aquino pursues a more conciliatory tack, it's not clear yet his overtures will be reciprocated by a peeved Beijing.
Richard Javad Heydarian is a Manila-based foreign affairs analyst focusing on the South China Sea and international security issues. He is a lecturer at Ateneo De Manila University's Department of Political Science, and the author of the upcoming book From Arab Spring to Arab Summer: The Economic Roots and the Precarious Future of the Middle East Uprisings. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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