January 19, 2017
The result of the UK referendum in June 2016 in favour of leaving the European Union stunned Europe and the world. In the context of the current uncertainty surrounding the negotiations between the UK government and the EU regarding Brexit, expectations and understandings of regionalism and integration will need to be reassessed.
In Asia, Britain’s exit will have far-ranging effects on how European integration is perceived and trigger reassessment of ASEAN’s own endeavours. How will ASEAN cultivate its relationship with the EU? If, in the words of the UK’s Prime Minister Theresa May, ‘Brexit means Brexit’, what does it mean for ASEAN?
The EU has always been perceived as primarily an economic entity characterised by trade and aid in its engagement with ASEAN. There is a certain persistent scepticism in Asian official circles about Europe’s approach to integration, especially regarding its pooling of sovereignty and decision-making on what are regarded as core roles of the state.
The Brexit crisis has to an extent reinforced the view that the EU is not a body to be replicated elsewhere, and that ASEAN and the EU are distinct. But this idea has been around for quite some time in Asia.
I want us to be a truly Global Britain – the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe too. A country that gets out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike.–Theresa May, January 17, 2016
While some argue that the Brexit referendum result has threatened the EU’s example of regional integration, the idea that the EU was ever an archetype of integration has long been dismissed by scholars, practitioners and the general public. Brexit will likely consolidate existing perceptions in Asia about the EU — that European style integration has little relevance for ASEAN, even though there are some areas of inspiration — as opposed to triggering novel insights with regard to the nature of regionalism.
But ASEAN must remain modest. ASEAN’s differences and idiosyncrasies have been emphasised to prove that similar exits by ASEAN states are unlikely in contemporary Asia.
But ASEAN’s unique features are not necessarily strengths. ASEAN elites must avoid the temptation to condescendingly chide the EU for perceived failings. ASEAN needs to strike a fine balance between gaining self-confidence and remaining modest so as not offend its partners.
This is because many of the concerns surrounding European regionalism are also relevant to Asia.
The UK has been an ‘awkward’ partner of the EU since it joined in 1973. So what can we learn from Brexit about difficult or reluctant member states or partners of regionalism in ASEAN?
Might Indonesia, for example, prefer to pursue its own ‘awkward’ stance within ASEAN? Or Vietnam? How might ASEAN deal with the need for public awareness and education, public trust in ASEAN as a regional organisation, issues of social and economic inclusion and the rise of nationalism? After all, nationalism is at the heart of ASEAN and featured prominently in the Brexit referendum.
For regional organisations such as ASEAN and the EU, managing the domestic temptation to treat regional bodies as scapegoats for political failures is crucial. They need to develop clear strategies in order to maintain relevance and to provide clear benefits to their citizens. The Brexit campaign was remarkable for the absence of discussion regarding the domestic benefits of EU membership. ASEAN and the EU must reconsider how they maintain a balanced narrative of both modesty regarding their achievements and confidence that regionalism brings benefits to citizens.
As Paul Taylor has pointed out, the achievements of European integration — peace, open markets and open borders — have been overlooked or taken for granted and have been replaced with concern about ‘a loss of national identity, and remote, unaccountable rulers’.
The shock of Brexit has brought all of these themes to the fore. How Asian regional bodies respond to these concerns and expectations, and how the EU–ASEAN relationship is affected by these issues will be important questions for the future.
The resort to national interests is not only a UK approach. All ASEAN members seek to protect national interests. Yet their elites have all, to date, recognised the benefits of ASEAN membership. The UK case illustrates the dangers of emphasising the cost of membership to a regional body when its national leaders do not promote or even recognise the benefits of such a grouping.
The EU will continue to advance its case for closer strategic engagement with ASEAN. It will do so without the UK. The EU’s Foreign Policy chief, Federica Mogherini, has made clear to Asian partners that the EU seeks to be more embedded in the region.
As for the UK, post-Brexit it will seek to consolidate its relations with its Asian counterparts, but from a starkly different starting point — it has not negotiated trade deals since it joined the EU in 1973, as this is an EU policy competence. Beyond ASEAN, it will have its hands full re-establishing its place in the world outside of the EU and will need to renegotiate a plethora of deals, including within the WTO. It will be a steep learning curve for the UK — and ASEAN may well wish to take advantage of this.
Laura Allison-Reumann is Research Fellow at the Public Policy and Global Affairs Programme, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. Philomena Murray is Jean Monnet Chair ad personam at the School of Social and Political Sciences, University of Melbourne, Australia.
January 14, 2017
China’s Investments–Geo-Political Implications for Malaysia
by Dennis Ignatius
China’s ravenous appetite for Malaysian infrastructure assets has resulted in yet another multibillion ringgit deal. In early January, a RM6.3 billion deal to redevelop and expand Penang Port was signed between two Chinese port operators (Shenzhen Yantian Port Group and Rizhao Port Group) and local partner, KAJ Development, a relatively unknown reportedly state-owned company incorporated in 2001.According to press reports, the project would increase the port’s ship handling capacity to 100,000 ships per year.
Dominating the transport sector
The Penang deal comes on the heels of KAJ Development’s RM30 billion Malacca Gateway Project with another Chinese conglomerate, Powerchina International Group. The Gateway project includes extensive land reclamation and the development of what is expected to be the biggest port in the region.
Barely 55 km away from the Malacca Gateway project, work has begun on the RM12.5 billion Kuala Linggi International Port project, funded by China Railway, Port & Engineering Group. When completed, Linggi port will become, according to a company statement, “the world’s preferred shipping hub in the Straits of Malacca” offering port facilities, storage and transshipment of crude oil and petroleum products and repair and bunkering facilities.
According to press reports, construction has gone ahead despite objections that the project could well be an environmental hazard. Not to be outdone, the Port Klang Authority is now planning to build another giant port on Carey Island which is expected to cost RM200 billion. According to reports, the transport ministry is in talks with China Merchants Group to finance the project.
On the east cost of Peninsular Malaysia, another Chinese company, Guangxi Beibu International Port Group already owns a 40% stake of Kuantan Port Consortium and is investing billions to double the port’s capacity. China is also a key investor in Sarawak’s Samalaju Industrial Port project.
At this rate, and given China’s already sizeable investments in our railway infrastructure, China will soon be the dominant player in Malaysia’s transportation sector.
Quite apart from the obvious security implications, China’s massive investments in ports and railways have also raised a number of concerns which have yet to be adequately addressed.
How much port capacity, for example, do we really need bearing in mind that we spent billions developing the Port of Tanjung Pelapas (making it one of the largest container ports in the region) and that not all of our ports are operating at fully capacity?
And how will other major port developments now being planned along the Malacca Straits, such as the mammoth Tuah project in Singapore and the China-funded Tanjung Sauh port in Indonesia’s Batam island impact overall capacity? It certainly looks like this whole port building frenzy has gone off the deep end, especially as no convincing argument has been made that such a significant increase in port capacity is even warranted.
Without credible feasibility studies and greater transparency, these projects could well end up like the Petroleum Hub project which was taken out of service in 2012 after the government had spent more than RM100 billion on land reclamation, costs which Malaysia’s long suffering taxpayers are now having to shoulder.
It is also unclear what the actual financial arrangements are for many of these Chinese projects and what kind of concessions and guarantees Malaysia has had to offer. That some of these projects involve secret negotiations and secret agreements with companies that don’t appear to have much experience or which have been blacklisted by the World Bank, only adds to concerns about control, ownership, costs, viability and the potential for corruption.
And unlike earlier infrastructure projects where local companies retained significant oversight and decision-making authority, projects with China invariably end up with Chinese companies in charge of management, design, procurement and construction. Even the workers come from China!
Whatever happened to all our national policies about equity, local participation and transfer of technology? At the end of the day, it is hardly the kind of “equal, mutually beneficial, win-win” situation that the Chinese embassy here likes to brag about.
The other thing about many of these Chinese projects is the constant reference by Malaysian politicians and businessmen to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. Suddenly, it is no longer about Malaysia’s national development goals or priorities but about whether or not it is relevant to OBOR.
It is perhaps a testimony to China’s increasing power and influence that many of our political and business leaders are now gamely parroting the Chinese line about how great and magical OBOR is and how fortunate we lesser mortals are to receive Chinese loans, Chinese technology and Chinese expertise to help build OBOR-related infrastructure.
What they don’t see or don’t want to acknowledge is that through clever financing arrangements, China is in fact getting us to pay for the infrastructure that it needs to establish economic primacy in the region. OBOR is primarily about China’s strategic national objectives; whatever benefits to Malaysia are purely incidental.
In the absence of a critical and in-depth assessment of whether these OBOR-related projects genuinely serve Malaysia’s interests and are worth the costs to Malaysian taxpayers, it would be ‘bodoh’ to acquiesce to it.
The geopolitical element
And let’s not be unmindful of the geopolitical considerations as well. Will we see Malaysian ports, for example, being integrated into the Chinese Navy’s regional infrastructure to support its growing naval presence in the region?
While the government is coy about the kind of naval access that has been given to the Chinese Navy for obvious political reasons, port calls by Chinese naval vessels are increasing. Two Chinese submarines, for example, quietly docked at Kota Kinabalu port recently while Chinese warships now regularly use other Malaysian port facilities.
China of the 21st Century is a nation of geo-strategic thinkers and state entrepreneurs–Keeping Asia secure and safe means China is safe too.
China is making strategic investments to fortify its position as the dominant player in the South China Sea with modern port facilities in ASEAN and expand trade in Chinese manufactured goods and services. It is using Malaysia to have important stakes in the Straits of Malacca (in Malacca, Penang and Johore ports). Why not, particularly when assets in Malaysia can be acquired on the cheap or profitable investments made at inflated cost (for the benefit of corrupt UMNO and Barisan Nosional politicians). I am not against Chinese investments per se, but I am very concerned with deals done on a hush-hush basis by Najib and his cohorts. China’s moves in Asia does not end with the South China Sea. It is back to the age-old objective of keeping the barbarians at the gate.–Din Merican
Of course, naval vessels from other countries regularly berth at our ports, and in itself is no cause for alarm. However, only China is aggressively pursuing territorial claims against Malaysia. For that reason alone, caution is called for. Does it make sense for us to facilitate the very naval force that is intruding into our waters, harassing our fishermen, laying claim to our reefs and islands and gathering data to support those claims?
There are also growing concerns about the massive residential and commercial development projects that are being built with Chinese capital.
The RM100 billion Forest City project, for example, one of two being built by Chinese conglomerate Country Garden, will reportedly house more than 700,000 people in a development that will include office towers, parks, hotels, shopping malls and an international school.
Meanwhile, China state-owned Greenland Group is building office towers, apartments and shops on 128 acres in Tebrau, Johor, while Guangzhou R & F Properties Co. has begun construction on the first phase of Princess Cove, another mixed development along the Johor coast, with hotels, offices, parks, shopping malls and clubhouses.
In Kuala Lumpur, China Railway Group (CRG) will be developing the mega Bandar Malaysia project which is expected to cost between RM160 – 200 billion. Bandar Malaysia will host the world’s largest underground city together with shopping malls, indoor theme parks, a financial centre, residential and commercial units as well as the RM8.3 billion regional headquarters of China Railway.
CRG is also involved in another RM2.1 billion project in Ampang to build 7,000 residential units as well as commercial and retail outlets. In keeping with the management practices of most China-based corporations, CRG has been appointed the main contractor with sole responsibility for monitoring, managing and supervising the day-to-day construction and operations of the project.
Reports suggest that these massive residential and commercial developments in Malaysia are being marketed mainly to PRC nationals who wish to work, reside or holiday in Malaysia. Country Garden, for example, has been aggressively promoting its Forest City project in China; it is already the 11thmost popular investment destination for Chinese home buyers on.
In addition, relatively cheaper living costs, affordable private medical facilities, a (mostly) smog- free environment and proximity to both China and Singapore, make Malaysia a preferred retirement destination for middle-class Chinese. China’s ageing population (240 million over the age of 60 by 2020) makes for a huge potential market that Chinese developers are hoping to exploit.
If the expectations of these China-based developers are realized, we could be seeing more than a million PRC nationals living in Malaysia within a decade.
Malaysians must ask themselves whether it would be desirable to see a huge influx of citizens from just one country establishing foreign enclaves here. It is not beyond the realm of possibility that these colonies could soon evolve into exclusive, semi-autonomous zones serviced and managed by PRC nationals for the benefit of PRC nationals.
What impact will this have on the social, cultural and political fabric of our nation? How will it affect property prices? How will any downturn in the Chinese economy influence the local property market? How much of the related infrastructure costs of these projects are being borne by Malaysian taxpayers? And what kind of concessions are being given to these property developers?
Viewed from almost any perspective, therefore, Malaysia’s burgeoning economic, political and military relationship with China ought to set off alarm bells across the nation.
The combination of a rising power with global ambitions backed by an unlimited stash of cash buying up strategic infrastructure assets, on the one hand, and a local political elite bent on staying in power at all costs tethered to cronies more interested in profits than patriotism, on the other, could prove a fatal one.
Even in the best of circumstances, it would be simply too risky to allow any one country to dominate our economy and control critical infrastructure networks the way China is now set to do. It gives China too much power and influence in the affairs of our nation and it leaves us too indebted, too exposed to a country whose intentions must be considered with some circumspection.
How far will China go to protect its position?
One thing we can be sure of, though, if history is anything to go by: the more China invests in Malaysia, the more China will be tempted to intervene and meddle in our affairs to protect its investments and ensure its strategic position is not jeopardized. Indeed, China has already begun to do so.
In a statement just this week, the Chinese embassy lashed out at opposition leaders and others for questioning the government’s policies towards China, accusing them of having ulterior motives and instigating hatred against China and warned that “China will not allow anyone to jeopardize the mutually beneficial bilateral cooperation between China and Malaysia.”
Amazingly, the Embassy also dared to presume to speak for Malaysian Chinese when it suggested that such actions by the opposition would not earn them the trust of the Malaysian Chinese community.
Clearly, the Chinese embassy now feels it has the right to threaten our politicians, inveigh against those who raise questions about China’s investments and inject itself into what is essentially a domestic discussion.
Such brazen interference in our domestic affairs will only get worse. How far will China now go to stifle domestic opposition and criticism to its increasing role in our nation? Will it work behind the scenes to prop up local pro-China leaders in much the same way as the CIA did in other countries?
The most pressing foreign policy challenge
Tellingly, while the Chinese embassy grows bolder, many of our own leaders remain silent despite blatant acts of interfere in our domestic affairs.
In the early years of our relationship with China, our security agencies were extremely concerned that Malaysia’s ethnic Chinese community might sell out to China; who would have thought we would end up in situation where many of our politicians and officials would be so blinded to the challenges that China now presents or worse still, resign themselves to the inevitability of some sort of Chinese domination?
One minister, for instance, recently remarked in his blog that “it is futile trying to resist China’s great march forward just like it was futile to resist Western colonialism 500 years ago.” He also said that China is buying up assets all over the world and that is something that “Malaysia needs to accept or else get left behind and perish.”
Let’s be clear: this is not about trying to stop China from rising or about shunning Chinese investments but about ensuring that we don’t get colonized again, about making sure that China does not get to the point where it controls our economy and is able to dictate policy as it already does in some neighbouring countries.
Whatever it is, Malaysians must not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by all the sweet talk of mega contracts, grandiose promises of prosperity and jobs or the effusive pledges of eternal friendship for that matter.
China is no different from any other big power and we would do well to be wary when dealing with it.
As the late Tun Ghazali Shafie, arguably the best Foreign Minister we’ve ever had, was fond of reminding us at Wisma Putra: small countries on the peripheries of a big power don’t have the luxury of taking anything for granted.
At the very least, we owe it to ourselves, and to future generations, to have a national debate on this, the most pressing foreign policy challenge we now face as a nation. And the Chinese embassy would do well to butt out of it.
January 12, 2017
China issues urges small and medium-sized countries to pursue the path of mutually beneficial cooperation for regional peace and stability
by Channel News Asia
SINGAPORE: China on Wednesday (Jan 11) issued its first white paper on issues related to Asia-Pacific security cooperation.
In the six-point proposal, reproduced in full by Xinhua, Beijing stated that “small- and medium-sized countries need not and should not take sides among big countries”.
“All countries should make joint efforts to pursue a new path of dialogue instead of confrontation and pursue partnerships rather than alliances, and build an Asia-Pacific partnership featuring mutual trust, inclusiveness and mutually beneficial cooperation,” the white paper read.
It added that China would step up its role in regional and global security to take on greater responsibilities. “China is ready to pursue security through dialogue and cooperation in the spirit of working together for mutually beneficial results, and safeguard peace and stability jointly with other countries in the region.”
“The realities of geography, military and vast economic power yield China essentially permanent advantages over its near neighbors. They are always going to live in the shadow of China, and their economies will continue to be become more closely integrated with China’s. China’s neighbors will always need Beijing more that it needs them. This leverage means that over the long term, whether control is centralized or not, China’s strategic approach to maritime issues will leave little room for compromise.”–http://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/the-real-south-china-sea-problem-the-shadow-china-12015–
China remains committed to “upholding peace and stability in the South China Sea” and will continue to maintain dialogue on the issue with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), it said.
However, Beijing also warned that it could be forced to issue “necessary responses to the provocative actions which infringe on China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, and undermine peace and stability in the South China Sea”.
It added that no effort “to internationalise and judicialise” the South China Sea issue “will be of avail”.
The paper concluded that China’s development would add to “the momentum for world peace”.In a news conference to explain the white paper, Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said it proposes to strengthen cooperation by promoting common development, perfecting existing regional multilateral mechanisms, promoting rule setting, intensifying military exchanges and cooperation, and properly resolving divergences and disputes.
“We hope that all countries in the region will work along with China to uphold win-win cooperation and make joint efforts in achieving long-lasting peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region,” he said.
January 12, 2017
Timor-Leste’s win against Goliath Oz
Cristo Rei of Dili is a statue that depicts Jesus Christ on top of a globe, and is located in the capital city of the Democratic Republic of Timor-Leste.
The idyllic beauty of Timor Leste
A treaty that is unfair to one of South-East Asia’s poorest countries will be repealed to enable it to redraw a more realistic border with Australia.
I WAS in a village in Jakarta, Indonesia over the weekend and I was smeared by all and sundry.
This was a “smear campaign” of the joyous kind, though, held annually to mark the start of the year in Kg Tugu, near the port of Tanjung Priok.
The ritual is called Mandi Mandi but the water is only used to mix a beige talcum powder into a paste, which is then smudged on the faces of everyone, symbolising forgiveness in an atmosphere of fun.
Now referred to as Keluarga besar Tugu (Big family of Tugu), they were once known as Mardjikers, a corruption of the Sanskrit Maharddhika meaning “prosperous”, which acquired the meaning of a free person in the region. The word Merdeka (independence), used in Malay and Bahasa Indonesia, can be traced to mardjiker.
In 1653, the original group of former slaves were offered freedom on the condition that they changed their faith from Catholic to Protestant. Eight years later, 150 people from 23 families were given a place to settle down.
Kg Tugu was then a harsh swathe of forests and mosquito-ridden swamps and many died from malaria. However, the community survived despite the odds and have kept part of their culture, traditions and music alive over the centuries.
At the Mandi Mandi festival, the surprise presence of Xanana Gusmao, 71, the former guerrilla leader who led Timor-Leste to independence from Indonesia on May 20, 2002, made it a truly special event.
East Timor was a colony of Portugal until it first declared independence in late 1975, only to be invaded and occupied by Indonesia until a UN-backed referendum in 1999 paved the way for independence three years later.
When I last met him in Malacca in June 2016, Gusmao was in the midst of resolving a bitter dispute over Timor-Leste’s maritime border with Australia through the United Nation’s 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
UNCLOS gives all coastal states the right to a 200-nautical-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) from the sea surface to under the seabed.
Australia signed the convention in 1994 but in March 2002, two months before Timor-Leste’s independence, it pulled out of compulsory jurisdiction of international courts and tribunals on matters relating to maritime boundaries. In 2006, East Timor and Australia signed a treaty on Certain Maritime Arrangements in the Timor Sea (CMATS) but no permanent border was set.
Under the original pact, Timor-Leste received 90% of current oil revenues from the joint petroleum development area, and Australia 10%, but the further Sunrise IUA treaty gives Timor-Leste only limited claim over future exploitation of the larger Greater Sunrise field.
It prevented any negotiations on boundaries for 50 years, although the line should rightly sit halfway between the countries, placing most of the oil and gas in Timor-Leste’s territory.
In December 2013, Australian police and Security Intelligence Organisation officers seized files and computers from a lawyer advising Timor-Leste in the dispute over CMATS.
The lawyer, a former Australian Secret Intelligence Service (ASIS) agent, was reported to have prepared documents exposing Australian espionage to secure advantage for the country during negotiations for CMATS in 2004. His passport was cancelled, preventing him from travelling to The Hague, where the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) was due to hear an application to cancel the treaty.
The ASIS agents, who pretended to be aid workers, bugged the walls of an office where ministers met, gaining information that gave Australia advantage in the negotiations before the treaty was signed against an impoverished and vulnerable neighbour.
Gusmao described the raids as “unconscionable and unacceptable conduct” and when Australia refused to return the documents, Timor-Leste filed for a hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
The episode sullied Australia’s “fair go” reputation and in September last year, the PCA agreed to take up the dispute.
On Saturday, before Gusmao’s face was smeared and he went around smearing others, he told me that things were going well and to expect a good announcement soon.
And on Monday, reports revealed that Australia had to eat humble pie. A joint statement from both countries said CMATS would no longer apply after three months.
“The Government of Australia has taken note of this wish and recognises that Timor-Leste has the right to initiate the termination of the treaty,” the statement read.
For now, it means Timor-Leste has won another “David vs Goliath” battle and the situation will revert to the 2002 treaty which set up the joint petroleum development area.
Media Consultant M. Veera Pandiyan
January 12, 2017
Vacillations and Dramas Exist in Sino-Philippines Relations Too
By Chu Yin
The new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has damaged diplomatic relations for his country with his bold anti-US attitude and warming of Sino-Philippine relations. The Philippine attitude towards China has vacillated heavily. Since the founding of the Third Republic of the Philippines in 1946, there have been six distinct periods in Sino-Philippine relations:
The first period lasted from 1946 to 1960 when the Philippines adhered to anti-Communist party and anti-China policies, and thus was opposed to Chinese revolutionary rhetoric.
The second period began in late 1960 and ended in 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship fell. Under the Nixon Doctrine, Sino-Philippine relations began to thaw. The Chinese leadership took measures (such as lowering fuel prices to the Philippines in 1975) to promote economic activities and speed up the establishment of diplomatic relations. This was a steady, long-term process.
The third period from 1986-1998 commenced with the ascent of the Aquino-Ramos government. Due to the growth of the Taiwan economy especially during the latter part of the 1980s, the Philippine government sought Taiwanese investments to develop its economy; to that end, Manila strayed from the One China policy in favor of a One and Half Chinas policy, and thus was seen – successor to Aquino – with suspicion in Beijing. Although the Ramos government adapted a foreign policy emphasizing full-scale diplomacy with Asia, it did not substantially change the policy prioritizing Taiwan. Meanwhile, sovereignty disputes between China and the Philippines over the South China Sea were on the rise in the mid-1990s.
The fourth period took place during the Estrada-Arroyo governments from 2001-2010. The Philippines continued to pursue territorial claims in the South China Sea as its predecessors had, however, both the Chinese and Philippine governments took more realistic and flexible stances and communicated more often with each other, strengthening mutual trust. During this period the Philippines returned to a One China policy. In 1995, Manila removed China from the list of Communist Central Ruled Economies, and in 1996 Chinese president Jiang Zemin made a state visit to the Philippines. During this visit, the two governments agreed on terms for a Sino-Philippine relationship of friendship, mutual trust and cooperation for the 21st Century, and decided to shelve differences and seek joint development over the South China Sea. The Arroyo government, though, continued to strengthen its political connections to the US during this time.
The fifth period was marked by the Benigno Aquino III government from 2010-2016. In 2009, the US, under the Obama administration, undertook a “Pivot to Asia,” while concurrent shifts in the domestic atmosphere of the Philippines earned the Arroyo government massive criticism for its economic cooperation with China. Aquino the Third – being pro-America and anti-China – won the election. Having campaigned on the slogan of anti-corruption, he not only cleared Arroyo’s political assets, but also took a strong stance on the South China Sea issue.
President Duterte, elected in 2016, represents the sixth period of Sino-Philippines relations. In contrast to his tough rhetoric towards the US, Duterte has shown a realistic attitude towards China, after President Aquino III had forced China to take a back seat. The Philippines under President Duterte shelved the arbitration against Beijing and thus won generous aid and the opening of fishing grounds on Huangyan Island from China, though the decision did not solve the impasse facing Sino-Philippine relations over the South China Sea.
Sino-Philippine relations have three basic features. First, relations with China are never the most important diplomatic relationship for the Philippines; Philippine-American ties are always more important. On the one hand, the Philippines adapts its relations with China according to the state of its relationship with the US. During the Nixon-era Sino-US cooperation against the Soviet Union, Sino-Philippine relations improved rapidly; however, when the U.S. returned its focus to the Asia Pacific area, Sino-Philippine progress was largely undone. On the other hand, the Philippines hedge against American influence by entertaining Chinese interests. This strategy is demonstrated in Duterte’s diplomatic turn.
Second, the Philippines’ self-centered, national interest-based foreign policy is always at the core of relations with China. When the Philippines perceived Taiwan as more valuable than China, it distanced itself from Beijing. When Manila saw China as a threat to its national security in the South China Sea, it turned back to the US. Later, feeling the pressure of US interests, the Philippines again warmed to China. Although many hold the point that the Philippines is merely a pawn of China and the US, the Philippines shows its own will and interests through these strategic vacillations.
“On the one hand, China should take advantage of this chance to bolster relations with Manila. On the other, Beijing should remain wary of historical fluctuations in the relationship.”
Third, compared with the US, China functions as a more external and secondary factor for the Philippines. China’s policy on Taiwan and the South China Sea do influence Sino-Philippine relations. On the contrary, the US is the primary actor in American-Philippine and Sino-Philippine relations. American choices for pro and anti-China Filipino politicians are always a crucial factor in Philippine elections. Philippine elite families wield top down influence over the country, and thus when more citizens participate in democracy, the impact of American policy upon Philippine lawmakers will be mitigated. Duterte might represent an inevitable step in the Philippine transition from family politics to democracy. However, this does not mean that the US will lose the Philippines or that Duterte will be an anti-America hero. It only means that the US cannot depend on its historical influence over Philippine elites, and may turn to other means of courting the Philippine decision makers.
As for China, the periodic swing of Sino-Philippine relations means China should remain cautiously optimistic. On the one hand, China should take advantage of this chance to bolster relations with Manila. On the other, Beijing should remain wary of historical fluctuations in the relationship. China should take a realistic attitude and seek cooperation with the US, to steady the swing of Philippine policy instead of attempting to dominate the region. Such a strategy would make Philippine policy less likely to change with each new administration, and would protect Duterte from American scorn. Shelving differences over the South China Sea issue for the time being could make a later renegotiation more likely.
About the Author
Chu Yin is an Associate Professor at the University of International Relations and an Academic Committee Member at the Pangoal Institution. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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