In his fifth State of the Nation Address (SONA) on 27 July, President Rodrigo Duterte stated that, “Within ASEAN and beyond, the Philippines will continue to work with partners to address global perils and ramp up cooperation to secure for our peoples, greater peace, progress, and prosperity. The Filipino nation claims its rightful place in the community of sovereign states. Thus, we will continue to pursue an independent foreign policy.”
He further reiterated that “Alam mo (you know), I read a little over three weeks or last month that the Americans would, intend to go back to Subic. I will just put on record my thoughts. I have nothing against America, I have nothing against China but if you put bases here, you will double the spectacle of a most destructive thing just like Manila during the Second World War, during the retaking of this city. One of the most devastated cities in the world. Kaya maglagay-lagay ka ng base (If you will put bases) at this time, this will ensure if war breaks out because there would be atomic arsenals brought in, this will ensure the extinction of the Filipino race.”
Duterte was clear in his stand that he won’t allow the installation of military bases in the Philippines by the Americans, and he treats both, China and the United States (US) as friends, and intends to continue with his independent foreign policy. Under the Duterte administration, independent foreign policy is founded on fostering a broader and differentiated set of relationships solely based on Philippine national interests, designed to maximise the country’s autonomy, security, and prosperity.
Duterte also said during his SONA that he is not predisposed to war against China in asserting Philippine claims in the South China Sea (SCS) and he will pursue a more diplomatic posture and stance as he thinks the country is not prepared for war with China.
“We worked without fail to protect our rights in the South China Sea, neither beholden nor a pawn to anyone. We broadened the boundaries of Philippine diplomacy. We built productive ties with everyone willing to engage us based on equality and mutual respect. And, we redefined our relationships with our most important partners, placing the country in a far better position to advance our interests in an evolving regional order and emerging global problems,” he explained.
Duterte’s stand on the SCS, made both, local and international headlines. Many, most particularly the political opposition, reacted on the negative and construed it as an act of surrender and bowing down to China on the part of Duterte. These reactions are understandable and have their roots in The Hague tribunal ruling of 2016.
The Hague tribunal ruled that China had violated the Philippines' sovereign rights in its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by interfering with Philippine fishing and petroleum exploration, constructing artificial islands, and failing to prevent Chinese fishermen from fishing in the zone. Though China rejected the ruling as baseless and invalid, for many if not the majority of Filipinos, it was a decisive victory.
China’s rejection of the tribunal award coupled with some skirmishes in the SCS, generally impressed upon Filipinos the belief that China is indeed an “intimidator”, and is continuously encroaching on the sovereign claims of the Philippines in the SCS. This has largely triggered and infuriated Filipinos and instigated nationalist sentiments, that have led to negative perceptions and sentiments against China in the Philippines.
Furthermore, such foreboding is continuously being fuelled by the vilification of China by some political figures, some sectors of Philippine society, and by the mainstream media to a greater extent. This has resulted in intensified distrust and cynicism among Filipinos towards the “middle kingdom”. Filipinos have also witnessed China’s rise on the global stage with alarm and suspicion.
On the disputes over the SCS, the Philippines is asserting its territorial rights diplomatically and peacefully through negotiations and dialogues as opposed to aggressive and confrontational means. This was evidenced by the declaration of Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on 12 July during the commemoration of the fourth anniversary of the arbitral ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the SCS case as “non-negotiable.”
However, the next day (13 July), China rejected the appeal for compliance of the said tribunal award. China has always seen the tribunal ruling as invalid and illegal. Truth be told, not a single country, even the US or the Philippines for that matter can force or compel China to conform to the said tribunal decision other than by waging war. One has to take cognizance of the fact that, in the international arena, there’s no such thing as a “world government” with police power to impose such a ruling. That’s the reality of the matter.
This international situation has presented a choice between conflict (war), or cooperation (peace), which is the peaceful resolution of the SCS dispute through diplomacy and constructive engagement with China on the part of the Philippines. Duterte being a realist and a pragmatic actor, prefers cooperation for he sees this as the way towards economic stability and the survival of the country, especially now more than ever, given that the country’s war with the novel coronavirus pandemic.
While the Philippine government pursues a bilateral constructive engagement with China, asserting its territorial and maritime rights through diplomatic means, it also continuously works with ASEAN member states on the “China-ASEAN South China Sea Code of Conduct (COC). The COC is important for it seeks to manage inter-state relations within the SCS area and address disputes over territorial claims in the contested waters.
The COC is based on a 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and all 10 ASEAN member states. Multilateral regional settings like ASEAN are critical in dispute resolution for they have a strong norm-setting mechanism in institutionalising pleasant and amicable relations among geographically adjacent states. This institutional approach performs a complementary function to the bilateral talks and negotiations between China and the Philippines over the disputed CSC.
Hence, it is quite clear that the Philippine government stands its ground and is continuously asserting its rights in the SCS through various diplomatic means and settings. The position of the Philippines is thus far solid in its assertion of its territorial and maritime rights in the SCS. But the means to achieve these rights under the Duterte administration is through peaceful diplomacy and not aggression and confrontation.
Sino-Philippines Bilateral Relations
In terms of Philippines-China relations, the Philippines is forging deeper friendly and cooperative relations with China on issues and matters where there already exists mutual and cooperative understanding in areas where the two countries have no disputes or differences such as trade. This to some extent boosts the mutual trust and confidence between the two nations.
In as far as trade is concerned, China is fast becoming or already is the largest trading partner, the largest export market, and the largest source of imports and second-largest source of tourists of the Philippines. In 2018, bilateral trade between the two nations amounted to US$55 billion. In the same year (2018), China was the Philippines' top investors with investments reaching US$980 million. In 2019, China was one of the major trading partners of the country with an export value of US$944.2 million.
China accounted for 23.1 percent of total imports in August 2019 for the Philippines. In December 2019, the Philippines and China signed six bilateral agreements, which covered infrastructure, trade, customs, and communications bolstering the inter-state relations of the two countries. Two of these bilateral agreements, which is crucial to the Philippines is the “Davao City Expressway Project” with an estimated cost of around US$478.5 million, and the “Panay-Guimaras-Negros (PGN) Island Bridge Project”, with a cost amounting to US$535 million.
The two countries even discussed the integration of the Duterte administration’s flagship “Build! Build! Build!” infrastructure program with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as well as the “Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) agreement. The alignment of these infrastructure initiatives will lead to greater opportunities for cooperation and collaboration and bring forth mutual economic benefits to both countries.
On 28 July, China promised that the Philippines will be prioritised once it comes up with a vaccine for the novel coronavirus to which the Duterte government is quite appreciative. Since the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak, China has been extending help and assistance to the Philippines. Both countries stand together towards mutual assistance and cooperation amid the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Rising Tensions Between China And US
With rising tensions and a growing cold war atmosphere between China and the US, the potential military confrontation between the two superpowers seems almost inevitable. On this note, one may find President Duterte’s recent declaration during his SONA somewhat wise, pragmatic, and rational. His realist and tactical stance of not “rocking the boat”, meaning not provoking China by asserting aggressively the Philippines’ sovereign claims on the SCS, and by not allowing the Americans to have military bases in the country, is probably a blessing in disguise and should not be misconstrued as “kowtow-ing” to China.
Any possible skirmishes between the Philippines and China over the SCS will just lead to the escalation of tension between the two superpowers. This is something dangerous and will put the country on the brink of war with either of the two military giants. The fact of the matter is, the theatre of conflict for the imminent cold war between China and the US is the SCS.
Hence, while the country is waging a war against the novel coronavirus pandemic, it cannot afford to fight a proxy war at the same time for either of the two power blocs. The Philippines, as much as possible, must avoid being dragged into this confrontation between the two hegemons by maintaining an independent foreign policy – a neutral and independent position in which the Philippines is a friend to all nations of the world – while pursuing its strategic national interests, not necessarily aligned with either China nor the US.
The Philippines should continue to assert ASEAN centrality, which means unity and solidarity with its immediate neighbour-countries in Southeast Asia. It should also continue to forge good relations with the rest of Asia.
The Philippines should continue to pursue good relations with “middle powers” like Russia, Japan, Brazil, India, the European Union (EU), and Australia, by exercising multilateralism and diplomacy as its primary weapons in international relations. It should continue consolidating its deterrence capacity by relying on its strength and capabilities as much as possible.