China’s takeover plan counts on Filipinos to elect a new government on May 9, 2016, that is “more compliant” to giving up territory. This gambit adds to China’s range of winning options, as its claim over the South China Sea pushes other nations in the affected region to forge pacts defending freedom of navigation.
According to the Diplomat, China’s redoubled efforts to consolidate its takeover of the South China Sea is fueled by presidential contests now underway in the Philippines and the United States. Chinese officials have reportedly told the Diplomat that they anticipate a “more compliant” government to come out of the May elections in Manila.
At a reception to welcome “The Year of the Monkey,” Philippine officials were advised by Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua to show monkey-like flexibility toward China’s takeover of the South China Sea. Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario and his diplomatic corps listened to host Zhao’s Chinese New Year exhortation at the Makati Shangri-La Hotel on February 2.
“In the Chinese Zodiac, the monkey symbolizes vitality, flexibility, and intelligence. If you use your intelligence, show some flexibility, you will have a vigorous Chinese New Year. The same goes to the bilateral relations between China and the Philippines. Despite the challenges and difficulties, our overall relations remained stable and developing in 2015.”
According to Rappler, Vice President Jejomar Binay stands out among the Philippine presidential candidates as the most amenable to rebuilding relations with China despite its takeover of the South China Sea. Binay is known to have told radio station DZYM in Catarman, Northern Samar, on April 12, 2015, that he favored starting a new “joint venture” with China through bilateral dialogue. The vice president, who is facing ethical and corruption charges, spoke bluntly in Tagalog.
“China has the money, and we need the capital.”
Meanwhile, the often contradictory Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago is clear on her stand against Chinese reclamation activities in the South China Sea, which violate the Philippine exclusive economic zone (EEZ). She also supports the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) but draws a line against the Philippines calling on treaty ally the United States to back the law with might. According to the Inquirer, Santiago says that if elected president, she will not depend on the U.S. to resolve the China takeover and instead will negotiate with China and other countries to put the matter to rest. Her ambiguity clouded by rantings of U.S. military bases is used by pundits to expose her xenophobic pseudo-nationalism.
For his part, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte has expressed his disappointment over the U.S. as a long-standing treaty ally of the Philippines for allowing China’s takeover of land formations within the Philippine EEZ. In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, he questioned the U.S. inaction.
“Why did they not just stop it?”
Duterte favors going into an economic partnership with China conditional on Beijing stopping its harassment of Filipino fishermen and accepting that territory within the Philippines’ EEZ “is our property.” If elected president, Duterte pledged to assemble a new fleet of 40 gunboats to patrol Philippine seas against a Chinese takeover.
Senator Grace Poe’s stated position is to pursue the Philippines’ other ties with China and look beyond its takeover of the South China Sea. As president-elect, Poe would support the arbitration case before a U.N.-backed tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, while pursuing “cooperation, equality, and amity” with other nations, including China. In a forum organized by Filipino alumni of Harvard, Kellog, Wharton, and similar U.S.-based schools on November 25, 2015, she made this assertion.
“China has been a long time trade partner of the Philippines. We have other relations with China that go beyond political – economic, education ties, cultural ties. And I believe in pursuing these ties with China we can help each other.”
Endorsed by incumbent President Benigno Aquino II, administration official Manuel Roxas has pledged to continue using legal means to contest China’s takeover of the global commons. Roxas cites the Philippines’ continued cooperation with China in certain matters such as joining the Beijing-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. In a Rappler report, Roxas voiced his intention to pursue similar “economic and development opportunities” with China as part of his presidential plan.
As the Philippine elections shape up, neighboring countries continue to seek alliances to resist China’s takeover of the waters through which 30 percent of world trade passes.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, Malaysian Defence Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is discussing with Australian Defence Minister Marise Payne China’s placement of military equipment on the disputed islands. Analysts interpret this development as a sign that Malaysia is considering a tougher stand against Beijing, its largest trading partner. Also in Australian news, Foreign Minister Julie Bishop and her Singapore counterpart, Vivian Balakrishnan, have declared their countries committed to conducting freedom of navigation and airspace of the South China Sea against the Chinese takeover.
VOA News reports that Vietnam is welcoming a plan for countries to cooperate in patrolling the South China Sea. The plan would combine the naval forces of Japan, Australia, and India with the U.S. to patrol the waters subjected to China’s takeover bid.
According to the Diplomat, Japan and the Philippines have recently signed a defense equipment transfer agreement, making the Philippines the first Southeast Asian country to sign such an agreement with Japan. The deal is viewed as a direct response to the accelerated pace with which China is solidifying its takeover of the disputed islands and features in the South China Sea.
With the odds piling up against China’s takeover ambitions, Beijing seems to be banking on a “more compliant” Filipino president to shake the pile loose. A muted Filipino voice at the arbitration hearings could weaken the alliances it has inspired.
[Photo by Dondi Tawatao/Getty Images]