Time for the Philippines to Adjust its South China Sea Approach

Manila should pursue dialogue with Beijing while it still can.

Time for the Philippines to Adjust its South China Sea Approach
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Growing territorial tensions in the South China Sea  are taking a toll on the sizeable Filipino-Chinese community in the Philippines. Recently, one of the most celebrated Filipino writers went so far as to implicitly question the loyalty of the Filipino-Chinese community in an event of war with China, prompting vigorous rebuttals  from leading Filipino-Chinese intellectuals.

Slowly, it is becoming clear that the Philippines’ territorial standoff with China not only carries the risk of possible conflict in disputed waters and a precipitous decline in Chinese investments. The increasingly toxic diplomatic exchanges between Beijing and Manila has been mirrored by equally – if not more – adversarial language in the public sphere, with some netizens stoking inter-ethnic tensions and undermining the Philippines’ proud legacy of multiculturalism.

Any objective analysis would pin the blame on China for stoking territorial tensions in the region, which in turn means that Beijing’s behavior is key to the resolution of the disputes. Nevertheless, the Philippines can still learn some lessons from its neighbors on how to better manage the ongoing disputes and best deal with the Chinese juggernaut. Diplomacy isn’t only about mobilizing allies and friends against your foes. It is also about keeping your enemies close and peacefully managing differences with even the bitterest foes.

For a long time, the Philippines has maintained considerable harmony between the majority (Christian) Filipino population and the minority (but highly influential) Chinese diaspora in the country, many of whom have converted to Christianity, learned the local language, and integrated themselves fully into the mainstream as full-fledged citizens. While it is common knowledge that the Filipino-Chinese businessmen rank among the richest in the country – overseeing major conglomerates that have powered the Philippine economy in recent years – few have emphasized how many of the Philippines’ most influential political figures have also been from the Filipino-Chinese Mestizo stock. Jose Rizal, the Philippines’ founding father, has a monument in his ancestral home in Qiongque Village in Jinjiang City. The Philippines’ incumbent president, Benigno Aquino III – and his late mother, the ex-president (Corazon) – has proudly publicized his Chinese lineage. A testament to post-colonial Philippines’ strong cosmopolitan pedigree is that it has hardly experienced anything that resembles the anti-Chinese protests, which engulfed neighboring countries like Malaysia, Indonesia, and Vietnam in recent decades.

But saber-rattling between the Philippines and China in the South China Sea has rendered long-dormant inter-ethnic tensions more visible in the public discourse. Meanwhile, in autocratic regimes such as China, anti-Filipino sentiments have gained steam. If things continue at their current pace, biases and adversarial discourses could crystalize into a powerful, popular lobby against any diplomatic compromise in the future, undermining prospects for the peaceful resolution of the South China Sea disputes on a bilateral basis.

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In the Philippines, a growing number of people have come to view China as another Soviet Union bent on territorial aggrandizement and committed to spread its tyrannical (communist) ideology. Nowadays, it is common to hear people describing China as a “bully” that should not be negotiated with. In China, a growing number of people have come to see the Philippines as a “troublemaker”, which often acts at the behest of its former colonial master, the United States. In short, inter-state diplomatic brinkmanship is spilling into the mainstream public discourse, reinforcing longstanding prejudices and feeding zero-sum strategic calculations.

Learning from Others

The Aquino administration, especially Foreign Secretary Albert Del Rosario, has consistently suggested that diplomacy with China is practically fruitless. The default policy is to garner maximum international support and rely on an inherently uncertain legal maneuver against China. But the Philippines is not the only country that has been on the receiving end of China’s territorial assertiveness: Tokyo and Hanoi have been locked in a similar territorial standoff with Beijing.

China has been Japan’s archrival for decades, if not centuries, while Vietnam’s very national identity has been forged through its millennium-old struggle against its powerful northern neighbor. Yet, both countries have been more proactive and creative in engaging China without compromising their territorial interests.

Despite the ugly standoff in the East China Sea, Japan’s nationalist leader, Shinzo Abe, took a huge gamble when he pursued a formal dialogue with Xi Jinping on the sidelines of APEC in Beijing in 2014. Soon after their awkward handshake, Japan and China resumed high-level talks among their defense and foreign ministries, paving the way for various confidence-building measures to manage their territorial disputes and avoid accidental clashes in contested areas.

As for Vietnam, at the height of its dispute with China last year, it doubled down on engagement with China. After hosting China’s leading foreign policy advisor, Yang Jiechi, Vietnam dispatched a top official, Le Hong Anh, to Beijing to deescalate tensions. This was followed by the setting up of the third hotline between the two neighbors’ relevant agencies. Earlier this year, Vietnam’s party chief, Nguyen Phu Troung, made a high-profile visit to Beijing in order to explore additional mechanisms to prevent another ‘oil rig’ crisis and maintain robust economic ties between the two neighbors.

For both Hanoi and Tokyo, it was important to make sure their territorial standoff with China did not lead to conflict and undermine critical economic linkages with Beijing. At the same time, this has not prevented them from fortifying their position on the ground, ramping up their presence close to disputed waters, and enhancing their defensive capabilities.

In contrast, Aquino and Xi are yet to hold a single formal summit; the two countries are yet to sign a single hotline; and Chinese investments in the Philippines have been effectively frozen. Obviously, as the more powerful party, Beijing should take the initiative and make necessary compromises to show its good will. But Manila can also pick up a few tactical lessons from Hanoi and Tokyo, who have heeded the advice of the great Italian thinker Niccolo Machiavelli who once said: “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.”

Richard Javad Heydarian is an assistant professor in political science at De La Salle University, Manila,  and the author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China, and the Struggle for the Western Pacific.”