I have always maintained that our economic future lies with China which is poised to become the world’s largest economy with a per capita income of $22,000 by 2028. But it doesn’t mean we should eschew our historical and economic relations with the people who have stood with us before for a longer period – the US and EU. This is a dilemma that all ASEAN nations face. Some have handled this more skillfully than others. Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia seem to be doing a better job. In contrast, we have appeared clumsy, unsophisticated, lacking subtlety and perhaps a touch naïve. Despite our possessing arguably a greater leverage than other countries – legally and morally with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling in our favor on China’s territorial claim of the South China Sea – we seem to have squandered this away for apparently little in return, at least to date. Whenever pressed for a firm response to aggressive Chinese behavior, our government has responded that we don’t want to risk a war with China. But neither do these countries and yet, they have stood firm. In my previous column I gave the example of Indonesia standing firm against illegal fishing in its EEZ off Natunas Island. Indonesia has been seizing fishing boats – several of which are Chinese – and putting them to the torch. On one occasion, Indonesian patrol even fired warning shots at a Chinese fishing vessel.
Recently, we were handed two incidents that we should have made better use of with the weight of public opinion both in the Philippines and internationally on our side. The first was when a steel-hulled Chinese purse seiner rammed a wooden Filipino fishing boat in waters that are part of our EEZ and leaving the hapless crew to the mercy of the sea. Instead of showing indignation, the incident was dismissed as a minor incident that was blown out of proportion. This was followed by former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario being denied entry into Hong Kong for no apparent reason. Instead of viewing this as an affront to our dignity as a sovereign nation, the situation has been turned on its head into a case of the “improper” use of a diplomatic passport. That wasn’t the case, of course, because under the law – not a DFA regulation – he was entitled to one. Nevertheless, regardless of what passport he was holding, it was in the end a clear-cut case of China flexing its muscle.
Now aside from not wanting to go to war (although we were prepared to do that with Canada over garbage), the other reason being given for the acquiescence we have shown since President Duterte came to office is that we have placed a premium on real economic benefits over the elusive concept of sovereignty. But they are not mutually exclusive, if we are smart about it as Malaysia’s (wily, astute?) Prime Minister Mahatir has demonstrated.
Prime Minister Mahatir
Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad won the election on an anti-China platform. He accused his predecessor, Najib Razak, of selling Malaysia’s sovereignty to Beijing in return for costly loan-financed infrastructure schemes under China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Once in office, he halted all Chinese-funded projects and ordered an investigation. On a visit to the Philippines, he warned of the dangers of falling into China ‘debt-trap’ diplomacy, urging Manila to “regulate or limit influences from China.” He even suggested that China is the new colonial power.
There was no question that such rhetoric from a senior leader of ASEAN unsettled China. Subsequently, he successfully renegotiated the China funded East Coast Rail Line project, resulting in the price dropping from $5 billion from the original $16.4 billion.
Now he has completely changed his tune. He has become an enthusiastic supporter of the BRI. He has even sided with China on the Huawei technology issue saying that it was time for the US to accept that it was no longer necessarily ahead in the global technology race. There is expectation that he will now push for the completion of the RCEP negotiations, which includes China, at the expense of the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) which Malaysia is part of.
Malaysia, already the beneficiary of large Chinese investments and trade, has put itself in a favorable position to take advantage of an expected movement of manufacturing out of China as a result of the China-US trade war. Mahatir is keen to position Malaysia as a natural partner for China’s rapidly developing – and in some cases even leading edge – digital technology.
In the case of the Philippines, the question is do we even have a game plan in exchange for our acquiescence to China. A lot of promises in the form of MOUs and letters of intent were signed but so far few in terms of actual implementation.
One analyst, Malcolm Cook, senior fellow at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, posits the reason why this is so is because the President “embraced closer relations with China so quickly and so fully after coming to power that he gave them what they wanted before China had to reciprocate, so it is not a surprise that China’s promised economic benefits to the Philippines are fewer and slower than promised.”
China, more than any other country understands the importance of “dignity” and “face” which equates to “respect” after enduring hundreds of years of colonial oppression. It is what fuels their extreme nationalism and why it is easy to sell to its own people that judgments by international courts are a perpetuation of this colonialism. In that sense, President Duterte may have been on to something by giving them that space by not shoving that ruling in China’s face. But in expressing fear of war, in reinforcing the notion of the unenforceability of the PCA ruling, and dissing its own people who have been at the receiving end of China’s bull-in-the-china shop approach – from humble fishermen to respected diplomat – he has to my mind unwisely undermined our leverage and in the process lost the elements of “dignity” and “pride” that China no longer has to contend with.
In that regard, it is a pity that defiant voices like Foreign Secretary Locsin (polarizing though he may be) and Defense Secretary Lorenzana, have been overshadowed by the likes of Secretaries Panelo, Piñol and Cusi who seemed to be tripping over each other in defending China’s actuations which in this case, are plainly indefensible. We let China off the hook too easily.