China Moves to Isolate Philippines, Japan
Image Credit: Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

China Moves to Isolate Philippines, Japan

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The Philippines and Japan’s charm offensives towards China appear to have failed as Beijing seeks to isolate both powers within the region.

In recent weeks both the Philippines and Japan have made a number of overtures to China aimed at mending strained bilateral ties. Just this week, for instance, the chief of staff of the Philippine military, Emmanuel Bautista, pledged that his country would continue its no-confrontation doctrine in the South China Sea, while also saying that it would consider allowing Chinese naval ships to use the Subic port.

“Many foreign ships visit our ports and we welcome them, that is part of military diplomacy,” Bautista told The South China Morning Post, referring to the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).

Equally notable, Filipino President Benigno Aquino III announced earlier this month that he was accepting an invitation from China to attend a one day business expo in Nanning. He was expected to be received by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during the September 3 trip.

Japan has been even bolder in its overtures to China, with numerous Japanese officials and former officials quietly visiting China on a number of occasions throughout the summer. Although few specific details were revealed about the trips, there was little doubt that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was sending the envoys to try and improve ties with China, which have been strained since Japan nationalized some of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands last September.

Indeed, Abe said as much himself in his numerous calls for leader or foreign minister summits between China and Japan in recent months.

“I think there should be a summit meeting and also a foreign ministers meeting as soon as possible … I think such meetings should be held without pre-conditions,” Abe said at the end of July.

Other Abe administration officials have been making similar remarks, and Tokyo has expressed optimism that these summits would soon be held.

China has now roundly rejected the overtures from both nations. On Thursday the Philippines’ Foreign Ministry announced that Aquino was cancelling his visit to China next week at the request of the Chinese government. Beijing, for its part, denied having invited Aquino in the first place.

China has also repeatedly rejected Japan’s calls for a leader or foreign minister summit. Most recently, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Li Baodong said that there would most likely not be a summit with Japan and the sidelines of the G20 summit in St. Petersburg next week.

“A bilateral meeting involving leaders is not only about taking photos and shaking hands, it offers an opportunity for leaders to work out a solution to problems,” Li said in a press conference on Tuesday.

Beijing’s rejection of the Filipino and Japanese overtures does not signal that China is abandoning or moving away from regional diplomacy. To the contrary, China has been mounting something of its own charm offensive throughout the Indo-Pacific. Earlier this month, for instance, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spent six days in Southeast Asia. While warning that ASEAN countries need to be realistic in how quickly the South China Sea dispute could be resolved, Beijing has generally shown a greater willingness to discuss the issue over the last month or more.

This week, China even agreed with Vietnam—the ASEAN nation it has clashed with most frequently besides the Philippines—to work towards resolving their row in the South China Sea, and next week Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra plans to visit China next week for the trade fair Aquino was supposed to attend. Additionally, on Thursday the Thai Foreign Minister announced that during a meeting between FM Wang and his ASEAN counterparts, it was agreed that “We will not allow any particular issue to overshadow the ASEAN-China relations, which are progressing well.”

After repeated PLA incursions into India earlier this year, China has been pushing ahead with progress towards dialing down its border dispute with Delhi as well. Last week India announced that China had sent it a draft border cooperation agreement that both sides expect to sign when Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visits China in October.

Chinese officials have also been traveling to North Korea after a long absence, and U.S.-China military and defense cooperation has improved markedly over the summer. Indeed, China’s Defense Minister, Chang Wanquan, traveled to Washington last week and the two sides held their second joint naval drill last weekend. Chang and his American counterpart, Chuck Hagel, met again on the sidelines of the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM) this week, after holding talks at the Pentagon last week.

Thus, China has only been reluctant to engage Japan and the Philippines diplomatically. This is almost certainly aimed at isolating Beijing’s disputes with Japan and the Philippines from its relations with other regional powers. In other words, China hopes to reduce regional concern over its rising power and greater assertiveness by portraying its spats with Japan and the Philippines as rare exceptions to the general rule of China maintaining positive relationships in the region.

The aim of this policy is to shift the blame for the disputes onto Tokyo and Manila, reduce the amount of balancing China faces, and complicate Japanese and Filipino efforts to make common cause with other regional states.

It’s worth noting that this is the natural state of Chinese diplomacy since ancient times, when Chinese leaders used shrewd diplomatic maneuvers to get “barbarians to check barbarians.”

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