Let’s be clear on what we want, then, in the South China Sea: Do we want to escalate the conflict with China or do we want to mend ties with our giant neighbor?
In addition, do we really want to use the ongoing leaders’ summit of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Manila as our soapbox from which to demand that China back away from its expanding claims in the disputed sea? Or should we not attempt to hijack the forum and focus, as Asean routinely does, on non-confrontational issues like trade instead?
The new pragmatic foreign affairs policy of President Rodrigo Duterte obviously precludes any escalation of the situation in the disputed sea. The administration’s strategy is to befriend China after six years of saber-rattling and deteriorating relationships, in order to secure investments, trade and tourism.
It is still taking some Filipinos time to adjust to the reversal of the Aquino government’s policy of constantly calling out China over the territorial dispute, a strategy which saw the bilateral relationship between the two countries established by Ferdinand Marcos 40 years ago plunge to their lowest, most acrimonious level. But the truth is, Noynoy Aquino’s anti-China policy, while making him a favorite of Washington, resulted in no tangible benefit for Filipinos.
Of course, Aquino was overly proud of the UN arbitral ruling in the Philippines’ favor on the Spratlys issue. But as far as resolving the long-standing dispute is concerned, the decision has not caused one built-up reef to be demolished or one Chinese ship to withdraw from the area.
The sad truth is, territorial disputes like the ones we have with China (and which China has with other countries claiming various other parts of the sea) can never be resolved without armed conflict. And in a real battle between China and the Philippines, the US will surely stay away, thus ensuring our complete and humiliating defeat.
The 2012 incident in Scarborough Shoal, when a Philippine Navy vessel returned home after engaging in a brief, humiliating stare-down with a small flotilla of Chinese ships, is the template here. When it became clear to Aquino and all the other hawks in the Philippines that the US will not come to our aid in a conflict with China, Mutual Defense Treaty or no, the escalation option became void.
It is still void today, despite the presence of the favorable arbitral ruling. And when Duterte assumed the presidency, he made it clear that he was not going to war against China; after a visit to Chinese President Xi Jin Ping in Beijing, Duterte made it plain that he was for deescalation of tensions and more trade and investments.
The warlike madness had ended and sanity returned to Philippine foreign policy. Only the unreconstructed pili nuts in the Philippines, who are brown on the outside but all-American white on the inside, still pine for a return to the Cold War-like days of Aquino.
The territorial dispute will drag on for a long time. But meanwhile, we can have better relations, promote trade and even improve tourism with the Chinese.
This is a more realistic, more mutually beneficial and less America-centric approach to crafting an independent, Filipino-first policy. And after six years of empty, fruitless jingoism, it is surely a breath of fresh air.
* * *
Regarding the prescription of some that the Philippines, as host of the current Asean Summit, should rally regional support against China in the disputed sea, little more needs to be said except that this would be insulting to our neighbors and opportunistic in the extreme. Regardless of what our government and Filipinos feel in general about our dispute with China, our chairmanship duties certainly do not include forcing our neighbors to adopt our position as their own.
And Asean has always taken a policy of non-intervention in disputes such as the continuing one in the Spratlys, preferring to focus instead on economic issues of mutual benefit and on regional harmony. For some to describe the leaked draft , which only makes very general, Asean-like mention of the South China Sea problem, as “weak” is to call to stampede the regional grouping into taking a position that does not even concern members of the association that do not have claims in the area.
Let other countries that also have claims in the disputed sea stake their claims and ventilate their views during the summit, in much the same way that Duterte himself has used regional forums to express his policies and direction. For the Philippines to do so while it is chairman of the summit is in poor taste and an insult to the other members of Asean.
Of course, everyone knows where the warlike talk and the calls to make a stronger, uncharacteristic Asean stance on the Spratlys come from. They emanate from the remnants of the pro-US Aquino regime, who would also like nothing better than to embarrass Duterte as he hosts his first big international meeting.
But these people are allowed to make their fake-tough statements and their calls to convert Asean into some kind of military alliance against China. The rest of the region and majority of Filipinos know madness when they see it and will dismiss it as such