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After Threat of Rift, Philippines Looks to Reset Ties With China

Just months after pledging on the campaign trail to sail a jet ski into the South China Sea to defend Manila’s territorial sea claims, the Philippines leader has threatened to cut relations with the United States.

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Picture of China and Philippines officials in a meeting. Wikimedia Commons
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A visit by the Philippine’s recently elected, and feisty, President Rodrigo Duterte to China this week is being watched closely for signs of a shift in ties between the two countries, which have been battered for years over territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Until recently, China was the Philippines biggest security threat. Relations hit rock bottom, following an international tribunal ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claim to almost all of the disputed waters.

But now, just months after pledging on the campaign trail to sail a jet ski into the South China Sea to defend Manila’s territorial sea claims, (something Duterte now tells Al Jazeera was just election hyperbole) the Philippines leader has threatened to cut relations with the United States.

He has also suggested that he might start courting China and Russia instead.

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No small task

But getting Beijing and Manila on track after years of tensions is no small task, analysts say.

Duterte is traveling to China with a group of more than 200 businessmen and boosting economic ties between the two countries is a key priority of the visit, says Aileen Baviera, a professor at the University of the Philippines’ Asian Center.

FILE - Protesters rally outside of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, June 10, 2016. Relations between China and the Philippines have been strained following an international court's ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claims to large parts of the South China Sea.
Protesters rally outside of the Chinese Consulate in Manila, Philippines, June 10, 2016. Relations between China and the Philippines have been strained following an international court’s ruling in July in Manila’s favor, rejecting Beijing’s claims to large parts of the South China Sea.

“As far as the new Philippine government is concerned there is strong interest in placing emphasis on economic relations to get more trade, investment and participate in China’s infrastructure development programs,” Baviera says, adding that is something the two have not done in a long while.

Japan is the Philippines biggest trade partner, but Hong Kong is not far behind Tokyo in the lineup. Manila is looking for China’s help to build up its railway system and guarantees for its workers overseas.

Fishermen in the Philippines who have been kept from trolling parts of the South China Sea because of territorial disputes hope the visit will help them regain access to fish, while the two sides talk.

Baviera says that while it is unlikely they’ll be able to reset that issue during the visit, talking could help pave the way to new approaches and new initiatives.

President Duterte says he will not give any ground when it comes to the Philippines’ sovereignty in the South China Sea, but also notes he will not be inflexible.

“We will stick to our claim, we do not bargain anything there. We continue to insist that that’s ours and that the tribunal, the international decision will be taken up,” he says. “But there will be no hard impositions. We will talk and maybe paraphrase everything in the judgment and set the limits of our territories.”

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A Filippino fisherman removes tow ropes of his boat before heading out into the South China Sea, in Masinloc, Philippines, Nov. 8, 2015. Fishermen in the Philippines hope Duterte's visit to China will help them regain access to disputed waters.
A Filippino fisherman removes tow ropes of his boat before heading out into the South China Sea, in Masinloc, Philippines, Nov. 8, 2015. Fishermen in the Philippines hope Duterte’s visit to China will help them regain access to disputed waters.

China as savior

While the two countries still remain divided over that issue, they are finding other areas of common ground.

Duterte has lashed out at the United States and the European Union over their criticism of his controversial war on drugs. Beijing has offered to help in the effort and has invested in the construction of a drug rehab center.

China’s Foreign Ministry says that during Duterte’s visit this week, he will participate in anti-narcotics activities and both countries’ anti-narcotics departments have begun to explore cooperation.

From the economy to the war on drugs Beijing is portraying itself as the Philippines’ savior. Duterte has not been shy about how much he apparently needs China as well.

The headline for an interview between Duterte and China’s state-run Xinhua News agency quotes him as saying, “Only China can help us.” In the interview, he says that in addition to loans and Beijing’s help in building up its railways and economic cooperation is more important that talking about disputes.

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“War is not an option,” he was quoted as saying.

Beijing too is expecting some deliverables.

An opinion piece published Monday in the party-backed Global Times was cautiously optimistic about the visit, noting that differences were too great to be resolved in just one visit.

“The significance of Duterte’s visit will depend on whether any specific deals will be inked in the days to come,” the article says. “As long as there are agreements between the two sides, big or small, they might bring about a turning point in Sino-Philippine relations.” (VOA)

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Conflict and Diplomacy exercise on the South China Sea

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines.

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Chinese territory
China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947
One-third of global maritime traffic. An estimated $5 trillion in annual trade. Six claimant nations. One body of water. And that’s just on the surface.

Welcome to the South China Sea, the geographic commons of Southeast Asia’s navigable rimland. Its 3.5 million square kilometers of underlying bedrock contain oil and natural gas deposits that, by official U.S. estimates, are at least equal to Mexico’s and, by some contested Chinese estimates, might be second only to Saudi Arabia’s. Also, home to lucrative fisheries and supply routes that carry 80 percent of China’s crude imports, the territorially disputed region may be the most strategically important waterway of the 21st century.

Tracing shorelines of sprawling, hard-to-govern archipelago nation-states to the south, the sea is bound to the north by China, whose contentious claims to more than 95 percent of the region—first espoused by the nationalist government in 1947—cite ancient maritime records.

For centuries, these waters also have been vital to the economic survival of neighboring Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines.

The waters are also prized by regional non-claimants. For U.S.-allied Japan and South Korea, situated far to the north, South China Sea shipping lanes provide access to trade-intensive waters of the Indian Ocean, via which more than half of their respective energy needs are met. For non-claimant Indonesia, Natuna Sea fishing grounds along the southern fringe of the contested region hold vital natural gas reserves.

Many nations have urged Beijing to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), which sets maritime zones of control based on coastlines. The United States, which has signed onto UNCLOS without ratifying it, often relies on the international agreement to settle territorial disputes.

China has refrained, invoking intertemporal laws based on the deep historical record, such as archaeological findings on disputed reefs and islands. At best, China views U.N.-backed codes of maritime governance as incompatible with domestic laws; at worst, it sees them as instruments of Western hegemony designed to undercut its expanding influence as a world power.

China
Even after the global pressure, China has been adamant on its stand on South China Sea. Wikimedia Commons

On the horizon

If Asia’s astonishing economic growth of the past two decades continues, however, regional stability will remain a matter of global consequence. Beyond China’s increasingly assertive land grabs and island-building campaigns—some 1,300 hectares of tiny islets have been landfilled to sustain mostly military infrastructure, including runways long enough to accommodate bombers—low-level skirmishes between Chinese naval patrols and civilian fishing fleets from neighboring countries could spark international conflict.

In July, a five-judge panel in The Hague unanimously rejected the legal basis of nearly all of China’s maritime claims. Within weeks, China’s Supreme People’s Court issued a regulation stating a “clear legal basis for China to safeguard maritime order,” in which Beijing vowed to prosecute any foreigners found fishing or prospecting in disputed waters.

Other means of settling complex territorial disputes also appear ineffective. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations’ long-delayed code of conduct for the South China Sea, which Beijing officials said they would finalize in 2017, would do little to resolve conflicting claims of sovereignty. Much like the Hague-based tribunal’s ruling, any legally binding ASEAN declaration would lack meaningful mechanisms of enforcement.

While the United States has long said it does not take an official position on South China Sea disputes, it steadily criticizes China’s behavior there and plans to expand defense alliances with countries that have overlapping claims. By 2021, U.S. Navy officials plan to expand the Pacific Fleet’s overseas assigned forces by approximately 30 percent.

As President Donald Trump assumed office, some observers speculated that, like his immediate predecessors, he might be called upon quickly to handle another South China Sea crisis. Just months into his first term, former President George W. Bush faced an international dispute triggered by a midair collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island.

Less than seven weeks after former President Barack Obama took office, Chinese ships and planes confronted the USNS Impeccable, a surveillance ship in waters south of Hainan, and ordered it to leave. The U.S. said that it had the right to be there and that the ship was harassed, while Beijing defended its actions. Obama responded by sending a guided-missile destroyer to protect the Impeccable.

Such incidents, engineered or otherwise, are likely to continue defining the dispute as it unfolds in real time. Until broader questions of maritime sovereignty are resolved, the waterway promises to remain a fulcrum upon which the geopolitics of international trade, and thus the global economy, pivots. We’ll keep close tabs on developments here as they occur. VOA