We support the decision to include the disputed territories issue in the agenda of President Rodrigo Duterte in his visit to China later this month. As of press time, Mr. Duterte is expected to bring up this sensitive topic with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. That said, we would be disappointed if that is all that they talk about. Plus, it would be sad if that would be the public’s only takeaway.
Most Filipinos, the media included, have been obsessed with the territorial issues and asserting our claim. We should not ignore those, but we should not allow them to define our relations with China either. Many other issues also matter, such as our our economic interests, things like bilateral trade, foreign direct investments and people-to-people relations.
To be fair, the government has announced that the purpose of President Duterte’s fifth visit to China is to discuss matters of mutual interest. That’s encouraging, and we look forward to hearing the specifics soon or as events unfold during his trip.
We believe that a cornerstone of building bilateral relations is economic. According to government statistics, China is one of our top trading partners. Our imports from that country account for 22.8 percent of all the goods and services that the Philippines buys from abroad. China is also our third largest export market, after Japan and the United States. We would be better off if our collective attention is focused on selling more goods to China.
During President Duterte’s visit, we hope that there will also be talks about increasing Chinese investments in the Philippines. Frankly, many Filipinos are paranoid about this, citing fears of a debt trap. It would be unwise to ignore opportunities to attract investments from any country. So far, our government seems to have a good handle on this issue. There is no evidence of a debt trap in the Philippine case. Besides, we should not be so quick to equate our economic situation and capabilities with countries that suffer that problem. In our case, increasing investments from China would bring far more benefits than disadvantages.
Of course, economic partnerships cannot prosper without mutual trust and peace between China and the Philippines. Undeniably, President Duterte has been successful in repairing relations with Beijing. In past years, those relations have been frayed by the territorial disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea). And lately, bilateral ties have also been tested by reports of Chinese vessels illegally entering our territorial waters. But these problems justify the need for our respective leaders to talk, not to avoid honest dialogue.
We would be surprised if China was against bringing up these sensitive issues. Throughout the administration of former president Benigno Aquino 3rd, Chinese leaders have been calling for bilateral dialogue. Now is their chance. With situation relatively calmer, now is the time.
Dialogue does not mean surrendering our national interests or giving up our territorial claims. We can always agree to disagree with China, if necessary. Friends should be free to talk openly with each other. Otherwise, they are not truly friends.
Establishing closer ties with China does not mean abandoning our other friends and allies, particularly the US. For many Filipinos, Americans are family. That friendship was forged in World War 2, when Filipinos and Americans fought and died together against a common enemy. But we should not forget that many of our people, including our National Hero Dr. Jose Rizal, have at least some Chinese blood. Our position, therefore, is that it is better policy to be friends to all and an enemy to no one.
Those who are against the Philippines getting closer to China or fearful of it are in denial of reality. China is a military and economic powerhouse living virtually next door to the Philippines. Unless something catastrophic happens, China is on track to become the biggest economy in the world. We cannot and should not underplay that. Making friends with such a big neighbor is not only common sense, but is also in our national interest.