Speaking Of Asia

Manila caught between a shoal and a hard place

Instead of slighting Manila's attempts at rapprochement, Beijing should move to repair ties.

MANILA • Mr Perfecto Yasay, Jr knows a thing or two about recovering from bad situations. Diagnosed with two cancers some years ago, the former stocks regulator survived both and is in complete remission from the ailment. Now, as Secretary for Foreign Affairs to Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, he has an even trickier task handed to him by his boss - repairing the metastasis afflicting his nation's ties with China.

It is by no means an easy responsibility.

Not too long ago, nationalism in the Philippines, a former US colony, used to be defined in terms of anti-American sentiment. In 1992, when the Americans vacated Clark Air Base and Subic Bay, Filipinos celebrated. But three years later, they woke one morning to find that China had occupied Mischief Reef in the Spratlys, a resting spot and a place to dry nets for Filipino fishermen over the centuries. It was a huge shock but Manila papered it over. Many saw the act as a mere aberration on the part of a China set on a peaceful rise.

Thus it remained until 2012 when a confrontation flared in the Scarborough Shoal area after Chinese maritime surveillance vessels prevented Philippine navy ships from arresting Chinese poachers. A stand-off ensued. The US intervened, eliciting promises from both sides to withdraw. The Filipinos kept their word, the Chinese stayed on.

No president can tolerate the loss of territory on his watch and Benigno Aquino III was no exception. His mother Cory had been in charge when the Mischief Reef incident took place. Having come into office determined to build ties with Asia's dominant power, this was an unexpected turn of events. Indeed, Mr Aquino had gone out of his way to oblige Beijing; as the leader of a bustling democracy, he'd risked his democratic credentials to order his envoy in Oslo to stay away from the ceremony to award the Nobel Peace Prize to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo.

Mr Aquino took his woes to Asean but found little joy. Cambodia, that year's summit host, blocked every attempt to include a mention of the South China Sea in the final communique, signalling unprecedented discord in a grouping that takes great pride in its consensus approach.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Mr Aquino, with no military worth its name to back him against a powerful China, tried a last card: he took Beijing to court. An embarrassed China struck back. It told its people to avoid visiting the Philippines, destroyed several batches of imported Philippine fruits on "environmental grounds" and generally turned its face away from the archipelago. Hundreds of Filipino fishermen had their livelihoods snatched from them.

The tribunal, in whose deliberations Beijing declined to join, has delivered its verdict. It was a stunning ruling that went more in Manila's favour than anyone had imagined. It also has left that corner of South-east Asia with a piquant situation: China is in control of the shoal, a series of low-tide elevations. The Philippines has the high moral ground.

RAPPROCHEMENT

This is the point from which Mr Yasay has begun his work and he has started wisely by not gloating over the tribunal victory. The 69-year-old foreign secretary is blessed that he can, correctly, tell the Chinese that it was the previous administration that had slighted China by taking it to arbitration and that it is time for bygones to be bygones. Meanwhile, he has the unqualified endorsement of international law for Manila's position.

It is on that strength that he seems to have made the first attempts at a rapprochement, advising his peers at the Asean foreign ministers' meeting in Vientiane that he was comfortable with Asean not mentioning the South China Sea dispute in its communique. That takes the Philippines closer to Beijing's position that the South China Sea is a series of bilateral disputes and not something for Asean to be concerned with as a body.

In a dinner conversation with senior Asean journalists on Monday organised by the Japan Foundation, Mr Yasay explained his approach. An Asean statement upholding respect for international law and commitment to a rules-based order was enough of a message from the grouping, he believes, without seeming to be ganging up on China.

Meanwhile, he is not too concerned that China will build or place additional military installations on the shoal. The US, which underwrites the Philippines' security, had indicated that if China were to do that, it would be taken as breaching a red line. Since China has not done so, Manila is prepared to take that as a confidence-building measure - an olive branch extended.

"The resolution of disputes will depend on our ability to keep talking with China," said Mr Yasay. "We are prepared to let the dust settle a bit and we will discuss this without preconditions. This is what we are preparing each other for."

And he is prepared to put the dispute aside for future generations if there could be movement on other fronts. The Duterte administration would welcome Chinese funds to repair the crumbling infrastructure around the nation, and particularly in Mindanao. It wants to see Chinese investments in its industries and to have Chinese tourists visit again. It also wants Filipino fishermen to be able to access Scarborough Shoal again - a concession that, if gained, would help boost the standing of an amazingly popular president and his government.

It is perhaps too early to tell how Beijing will react to all this, but the initial signs are not too promising.

SLIGHTED BY CHINA

Mr Duterte will be going to his first Asean summit next week, when the 10 heads of the group gather in Vientiane, joined by leaders from the US, China, Japan, Russia, India and others who attend the broader East Asia Summit that is held alongside. Mr Duterte has meetings planned with US President Barack Obama, Japan's Shinzo Abe and India's Narendra Modi. A meeting with the Russian president also looks likely. But with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, Mr Yasay admitted, no more than a handshake seems on the cards. Neither side has approached the other for a longer encounter.

Likewise, Mr Duterte sent former president Fidel Ramos early last month to initiate a dialogue with China. Mr Ramos, hugely respected in his nation, is seen as something of a mentor to the Duterte administration. Beijing responded by sending Madam Fu Ying, an apparatchik known for hardline positions in foreign policy. Many in Manila felt slighted that China did not deem it fit to send a higher functionary, perhaps a retired vice- premier at the very least, to talk to their elder statesman.

The Duterte administration would welcome Chinese funds to repair the crumbling infrastructure around the nation, and particularly in Mindanao. It wants to see Chinese investments in its industries and to have Chinese tourists visit again. It also wants Filipino fishermen to be able to access Scarborough Shoal again - a concession that, if gained, would help boost the standing of an amazingly popular president and his government.

What a pity. The Philippines was the second Asean member, after Malaysia, to accord diplomatic recognition to China. To repair the damage to ties - Philippine nationalism these days is defined in anti-China terms - should be an imperative for Beijing as the prelude to a wider reset of roiled ties with South-east Asia. This is its backyard after all. To turn an old adage on its head, good neighbours make good fences - if fear of encirclement by a wary America is indeed the insecurity that drives some of China's actions.

"The international community has in a profound sense pressured China to rethink its position. If it insists on not recognising a rules-based system, it will be isolated. It has more to lose," Mr Yasay warned.

China would be silly to allow Mr Duterte's frustrations to mount. Mr Duterte is not short of suitors and rebuffing him would only serve to push him more towards China's strategic rivals.

It could even get worse. The famously loose-lipped president is known to hold rambling, late-night press conferences. He has also used extremely coarse language on the US ambassador, who has since left his post in Manila. What if, at the end of a long day, a reporter probed him on the Chinese leadership's attitude towards his nation and the response from a tired and frustrated Philippines president came in similar language?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 02, 2016, with the headline 'Manila caught between a shoal and a hard place'. Print Edition | Subscribe