Will Philippine Elections Bring About a New China Policy?
As the Philippines enters the elections season, analysts have been scrambling to predict potential changes in the country’s political and economic trajectory. Under President Benigno Aquino’s watch, the Southeast Asian country has managed to shake off its decades-long notoriety as the “Sick man of Asia.” Today, the Philippines is widely considered to be one of the few bright spots in an otherwise gloomy economic landscape.
Recent years, however, have also seen a dramatic uptick in bilateral tensions with China, which has gradually chipped away at the Philippines’ territorial claims in the South China Sea. It's no wonder then that, for the first time in recent memory, foreign policy issues, particularly China’s maritime assertiveness in the South China Sea, are expected to feature as a major election issue. In a curiously premature article, one observer foresaw a dramatic change in the Philippines’ foreign policy towards China once Aquino steps down from office later this year.
A closer look, however, points in the direction of greater continuity rather than rapture in Philippine foreign policy, especially if China continues to press its advantage in adjacent waters by militarizing territorial disputes. Absent a major concession on China’s part, which seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for the next Filipino president to effectively pursue a 'reset' in bilateral relations with China.
Don’t Miss the Context
Within a decade, Philippine-China relations went from cordial to confrontational. Some critics, in both Manila and Beijing, have heaped blame on the supposed naiveté and amateurish foreign policy disposition of the Aquino administration, which, on at least two occasions, likened China to Nazi Germany.
For sure, President Aquino as well as Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario have often employed an overzealous rhetoric vis-à-vis China, which has dismissed the Philippines as a “real trouble maker” rather than a critical neighbor to engage with. And analysts, including the Chinese government, have often blamed Aquino for the dramatic deterioration in bilateral relations, pointing out the (short-lived) “golden age” of bilateral relations, under the stewardship of the Gloria Macapagal administration, in the mid-2000s.
But this line of argument overlooks two crucial points.
First, the Aquino administration, especially in its earlier years in office, sought to engage China, to the point that President Aquino, the son of two democratic icons, chose to skip the 2010 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony for Chinese dissident Li Xiaobo out of solidarity with Beijing. In response, then-Chinese Ambassador to Manila Liu Jianchao remarked, “I appreciate the understanding shown by the Philippine government of the Chinese people and the Chinese government.” The following year, Aquino actually met Hu Jintao in Beijing as part of a bigger plan to expand bilateral trade and investment as well as explore a meaningful dialogue on the South China Sea disputes.
Second, and more importantly, the Aquino administration has had to grapple with a new China, one that has been more aggressive in pursuing its territorial claims in adjacent waters, culminating in the de facto occupation of Philippine-claimed Scarborough Shoal in mid-2012. Without the requisite military capability to wrest back the disputed feature, and in absence of meaningful American assistance, the Aquino administration was left with little choice but to resort to an unprecedented legal arbitration case against China.
Nonetheless, Aquino still tried to reach out to his Chinese counterparts during the 2013 China-ASEAN Expo, where the Philippines was the “country of honor,” before it was brusquely “disinvited” by Beijing. China didn’t only embarrass Aquino, who touted the trip as a potential diplomatic breakthrough, but it extinguished hopes for more effectively managing brewing bilateral disputes. Subsequently, the Aquino administration proceeded with filing its memorial against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague and pursuing a new security pact, the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), with America.
The Aquino administration has had its own shortcomings with respect to engaging China and defending its claims in the South China Sea. But its confrontational approach was largely a byproduct of China’s reciprocal intransigence as well as aggressive push into Philippine-claimed waters. So the question is: Will the next Filipino president be in a position to revive bilateral relations?