As noted in our feature from Vietnam this week, for now at least, Hanoi appears keen to move to tamp down tensions with Beijing after a difficult month in which both sides traded barbs over a territorial dispute in the South China Sea.
But it’s not just Vietnam that has decided to turn to talks. Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has reportedly arrived in China for bilateral discussions with Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi over the Spratly Islands, as well as to prepare the way for a visit in August by Philippine President Benigno Aquino.
The talks will begin Friday, but in the meantime I asked our Filipino ASEAN Beat writers for their take on the recent tensions and, more broadly, how China is perceived in the Philippines.
Lawmaker Mong Palatino noted that a resolution has been introduced in the Philippine parliament calling for an inquiry into ‘Chinese incursions’ in the oil-rich Spratly Islands. According to the resolution:
‘In May, satellite photographs showing Chinese military garrisons and outposts within Philippine-claimed areas in the Spratly islands were released to the public. Months before that, there were reports of Chinese patrol boats harassing a Philippine oil exploration ship while the Philippine Air Force reported sightings of foreign fighter jets flying near an island occupied by Filipino troops…These reported intrusions into Philippine-claimed territories are clearly violative of the 2002 Declaration which states that parties concerned should “exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner.”’
So how have these claims affected the bilateral relationship? Palatino says there’s growing concern among Filipinos about the ‘aggressive behavior’ of China, with more people now perceiving China as a bully. ‘The row fans anti-china sentiments, which is unfortunate since it has considerable investments here and the relationship between the two countries has been friendly in the past,’ he told me. ‘Because of the China threat, real or imagined, the presence of US troops is being demanded by some quarters.’
ASEAN Beat Julius Rocas agreed that there has been growing concern about China’s more muscular approach, as well as Palatino’s implicit caution over an increased role in the row by the United States.
‘We resent China's aggression and violation of our territory. However, we can only say so much about it because we know we are no match for China's military,’ he told me.‘The government quickly ran to the US for help because of our colonial past…But it blinds us from realizing that American intervention just polarizes the countries involved. In the blink of an eye, ASEAN's promise of regional unity vanished.’
Rocas is far from alone in thinking this, and that last point, on the collective failure of ASEAN, has been made by a number of our writers here.