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1. Negotiate, but from a position of strength. We should, without any reservation, welcome the resuscitation of frayed diplomatic channels between the two parties. In geopolitics, you can choose your friends, but not your neighbors. I am glad that no less than an old friend and a highly capable person like Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana is now in charge of facilitating this process. Throughout the years, we have supported resuscitation of diplomatic ties with China and criticized Aquino’s lack of engagement strategy.
After years of frozen relations, and almost zero institutionalized interaction among our top leaders, finally the Philippines and China can sort out the blueprint of a long-lasting ‘golden age’ in bilateral relations. This can be achieved through conflict-management mechanisms, which will prevent unwanted conflict in the area so that we can focus on areas of common concern.
At the same time, however, the Philippine government and top leaders should refrain from any language or action, which may communicate defeatism or downplay our bargaining chips, particularly our arbitration award, which can be used as a platform to mobilize multilateral diplomatic pressure on China (See my Brookings Institution article here), a country that desperately wants to be seen as a responsible power and regional leader. The last thing we need at this point is for officials to openly downplay the relevance or deny the binding and final nature of the award. This simply feeds into the Chinese propaganda line.
2. Raise the costs of defection. Despite our improving bilateral relations with China, the reality is that Beijing continues to expand its artificial islands in the Spratlys, is already fixing its gaze on the Benham Rise, and may proceed with building military structures in the Scarborough Shoal. Deployment of giant oil rigs into Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone is always a possibility, as the Vietnamese can attest to, not to mention the harassment of Filipino fishermen, military personnel, and energy exploration activities. Thus, it is extremely crucial for the Duterte administration to constantly remind Beijing that it is not setting aside the arbitration award, nor is it turning its back on old allies such as the United States and key strategic partners such as Japan, which are constantly evaluating their own counter-strategies to check Chinese ambitions in the area.
3. Buy time on the ground. One of the biggest mistakes of the Aquino administration’s strategy, in my opinion, was the postponement of earlier plans to refurbish and upgrade our facilities in Pag-asa (Thitu) Island and across the Kalayaan chain (Spratlys). Thankfully, there are indications that we will be correcting this mistake. Negotiations with China and other Southeast Asian claimant states can perfectly go hand-in-hand with our rightful duty to fortify our position on the ground. After all, all other claimant states have been doing this in the past two decades.
4. Separate economics from territorial issues. We should definitely welcome economic assistance and investments from as many countries as possible, including China, which is aiming to revamp the global infrastructure landscape under its ambitious transcontinental Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). At the same time, however, we have to make sure that this won’t lead to any debt-trap, nor will it come with implicit strings attached, namely our territorial sovereignty and rights in the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise.
5. Develop self-reliance and minimum deterrence. For years, I have constantly criticized Washington for wavering on the precise extent of its commitment to the Philippines. Unlike its predecessor, the Trump administration, however, seems to be willing to take a tougher stance in the West Philippine Sea. The Pentagon, based on my conversations with relevant individuals, is considering the option of explicitly placing the Scarborough Shoal under the Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT). Washington may not care at all for the Philippines’ territorial claims, but it cares about its access to Subic and Clark and other major Filipino bases facing the South China Sea and, more broadly, China’s expanding military footprint across the world’s most important seascape. This is about American hegemony. Yet, as in the case of Vietnam, which has a smaller economy than the Philippines, we have to learn to be self-reliant and not anchor our national interest on the whims of allies. In the end, the Philippines will have to allocate a larger share of its booming economy to developing a minimum defense capability against external threats. This is the true essence of an ‘independent’ foreign policy. Let’s start doing our assignment.
Prof. Richard Heydarian is GMA Network resident analyst, author of “Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific” (Zed, London), and widely considered as a leading expert on South China Sea disputes.
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