APEC Host Philippines Walks On Eggshells Not To Offend China As South China Sea Dispute Discussed In The Wings

Kenneth Lim

APEC host Philippines has put the South China Sea dispute aside while it entertains Chinese President Xi Jinping and United States President Barack Obama in Manila to discuss Asia-Pacific trade and investments. The Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum launched in 1989, supporting social inclusion, institution building and environmental responsibility, is being held in Manila from November 18 to 19, 2015.

Straying from the APEC summit agenda, Obama took a jab at China Wednesday, calling a halt to Chinese construction on dredged islands in the South China Sea. This unscheduled talking point came up at the start of a two-day economic summit, which host Philippines has organized in the interest of trade and climate change.

Obama had no qualms about bringing up a topic Xi pointedly ignores at the APEC meet, an accommodation for reporters after the U.S. president met with his host, Philippines’ President Benigno S. Aquino III. Obama questioned China’s claims to islands in the international shipping lanes, asserting its self-proclaimed entitlement to most of the South China Sea. He stressed the need to stop Chinese military activities on the artificial islands in favor of arbitration to settle differences among claimants. The New York Times quoted Obama’s statement.

“We agree on the need for bold steps to lower tensions, including pledging to halt further reclamation, new construction and militarization of disputed areas in the South China Sea.”

While the United States exercises impartiality in territorial claims, it draws the line on tampering with freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, a vital route for international shipping. To strike a fair balance among the South China Sea disputants present at APEC, Obama announced on Tuesday that the affected Southeast Asian nations, including host Philippines, will be given $250 million worth of U.S. military aid to guard against Chinese belligerence.

World leaders at A.P.E.C. summit
World leaders in Filipino dress shirts at A.P.E.C. summit [Photo by Getty Images]
Nineteen regional economies have gathered for the APEC discussions made possible by host Philippines. Standing out are such heads of industrialized nations as U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, South Korean President Park Geun-Hye, Australia Prime Minister Malcom Turnbull, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Pierre James Trudeau, and Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong.

According to Los Angeles Times, while Obama and Xi refrain from a direct dialogue on the South China Sea dispute during APEC, an opportunity to engage on the matter presents itself in the form of the upcoming climate summit in Paris. The point the U.S. is trying to make is not to contain China, a Washington think tank expert stressed, but to reinforce the status quo guaranteeing security for the Pacific, especially with host Philippines in a fragile state.

APEC host Philippines strongly supported the recent U.S. action dispatching a guided-missile destroyer to patrol inside the 12-mile maritime limit of reclaimed land where Chinese construction was taking place. Heated rhetoric from Beijing filled the media condemning the U.S. attempt to safeguard freedom of navigation on international waters.

While China carries out an aggressive territorial policy that appropriated Mischief Reef in 1995 and Scarborough Shoal in 2012, both within the exclusive economic zone of APEC host Philippines, Filipino politicians have compromised the only means to effectively defend their islands.

Xi Jinping and Barack Obama
Xi Jinping and Barack Obama [Photo by Pool/Getty Images]
An Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (E.D.C.A.) between the Philippines and its U.S. treaty partner (the Philippine constitution disallows war as an instrument of national policy) is mired in a legal challenge by parties politicking for the next elections. This treaty which would allow U.S. ships and military personnel to use bases and ports in APEC host Philippines to protect Filipino interests, has been relegated to the back porch of third world politics.

Keeping to the script, Xi told a business conference in the APEC summit, that China is overhauling its economy to raise the living standards of its citizens. According to Yahoo! News, China’s last quarter growth dropped to a six-year low of 6.8 percent in Beijing’s economic adjustment away from trade and investment. The slowdown has affected a host of countries like South Korea and Australia with considerable exports to China. Even the Philippines has felt the ripple effects.

Just as Obama called on China to cease further land reclamation and new construction in the waters of contention, Xi refrained from making a single public comment on the territorial discord instigated by his country’s dredging projects in the South China Sea. While observing the niceties required of an APEC host, the Philippines continues to grapple with the problem of lost assets within its exclusive economic zone.

[Photo by U.S. Navy/Getty Images]