Noise aside, the Philippines, under President Rodrigo Duterte’s independent foreign policy, has not only succeeded in defusing tensions and managing disputes in the South China Sea-West Philippine Sea but, more importantly, has expanded cooperation with China to the benefit of Filipinos. At the same time, the government presided over the biggest infusion in Philippine military capability buildup since the passage of the 1995 AFP modernization law. The Duterte administration’s investment in defense and diplomacy bolstered the country’s position in the flashpoint without needlessly estranging ties with other claimants, including China.
A comparison of how the Bajo de Masinloc/Panatag Shoal and the Julian Felipe Reef incidents played out demonstrates how the Duterte government outperformed its predecessor. Crises stemming from rival claims to territories in the South China Sea demand astute diplomacy.
Under the previous administration, Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th took three months of painstaking back-channeling efforts to induce a drawdown of Chinese ships in Bajo de Masinloc from about 100 to 3, after Aquino 3rd blundered by sending a Philippine Navy ship to address a fisheries issue. Fruits of the back-channeling, however, we’re spoiled by a feud between Trillanes and then-Secretary of Foreign Affairs Albert del Rosario, who asked the US to negotiate on behalf of the Philippine interest, which he only admitted seven years later in 2019, when pressed about it — did he not learn the lessons of Aguinaldo? The Philippines and China had agreed on a phased withdrawal until del Rosario violated the agreement by internationalizing the issue in the ASEAN Regional Forum and unilaterally pulling out Philippine vessels even without informing Aquino, (Trillanes account of the debacle reported by Ellen Tordesillas http://bit.ly/SCSaccounts). This led to an international arbitral case that cost the country almost a billion pesos, with a PR victory widely used by the US and the Philippines as enhancing sovereignty rights. In fact, none was settled that was “legal” or enforceable. And the biggest hypocrisy? The US has not ratified the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and continues to be the biggest violator in Philippine internal waters. Why has retired Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio not complained about this?
The Scarborough “standoff” also gave justification to the US to reestablish its military bases inside the Philippines under the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), but Aquino made Filipinos pay for the expenses of these installations, which requires Washington’s permission for Filipinos to enter, and placed the country at risk for being a base of US war materiel as revealed by the late nationalist senator Miriam Defensor Santiago and then-senator Ferdinand Marcos Jr. (http://bit.ly/EDCAsenate).
‘Diplomacy — war without bloodshed’
In contrast, within a few weeks after Duterte discussed the issue with China’s Ambassador Huang, the Chinese vessels reduced their presence in Julian Felipe Reef from about 220 to 9. No back-channeling took place and no domestic bureaucratic intramurals transpired. The investment in cultivating friendly relations paid off, creating more spaces to engage and even challenge Beijing without relations heading south. “Diplomacy is war without the bloodshed,” according to Philippine Ambassador to China Chito Sta Romana.
Indeed, under Duterte’s watch, the classic case of turning an adversary into an ally happened. China became the country’s largest trade partner in 2016, growing to over $35 billion, or 19.3 percent of total trade by 2019, directly benefiting Filipino consumers and producers. It has become the fastest-growing source of net direct investments, growing from $220 million in 2017 to $630 million in 2018; billions more in private investments and manufacturing; and a major partner in Build, Build, Build infrastructure program. China’s official development aid from 2016 to 2020 jumped to over $2 billion (rail, road, bridge, water; flood-control management; and local development through information technology, according to Finance Undersecretary Joven during a 2021 IDSI webinar). Two bridges donated by China are 80 percent completed. Improved internet services from the partnerships of Filipino and Chinese telecom providers are enabling millions of Filipino students to better connect to digital education.
Following China’s increased investments, the cluster effect also saw multiple increases in investments from Japan, South Korea, India, even from Europe and the US. Over 100,000 Filipino workers are directly benefiting from China-related projects in the Philippines, some 30,000 Filipino teachers and more construction workers are receiving incomes even throughout the pandemic. Over 300,000 overseas Filipino workers in China sent over $1 billion in remittances in 2018 and this is expected to grow. Improved relations and tourism offerings of the country saw a doubling of Chinese tourists to 1.7 million by 2019, directly contributing an estimated $2 billion to the local tourism economy (China tourists in 2019 to Thailand, 11 million and to Vietnam, 6 million).
When few countries were extending medical aid at the height of the pandemic last year, the Philippines received over a billion pesos of donated medical supplies and knowledge transfer from top Chinese medical experts. When wealthy Western countries were hoarding vaccines, China donated 1 million doses, even while fewer than 10 percent of its population were inoculated. When most manufacturers reneged on or delayed their deliveries, China’s Sinovac sent 4 million doses commercially procured by Manila, saving possibly over a million frontline health and government workers from statistically thousands of fatalities or hospitalizations, allowing earlier partial reactivation of the economy worth hundreds of billions of pesos in value. In addition, the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank approved $300 million to support Manila’s vaccine procurement. All these would not be imaginable had both sides allowed the maritime disputes to be the center of their relations as some quarters maliciously hope for.
The early resolution of the Marawi crisis that prevented the Philippines from deteriorating into an Islamic State was assisted by Chinese and Russian donations of emergency weapons whereas the US and the European Union blocked arms delivery (but later released). About P1.2 billion of low-interest loans from China were allocated for the reconstruction of the city infrastructure. Last year, the Philippines completed its biggest infrastructure upgrade in Pag-Asa, our largest occupied feature in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG), a milestone since Ferdinand Marcos claimed parts of the Spratlys in the 1970s. Our Navy and Coast Guard (including our whole Armed Forces) have also received additional support and resources under Duterte— contrary to repeated false claims by the opposition that Duterte has been “doing nothing” in the South China Sea.
Data from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) showed that the biggest investments in the country’s defense capability build-up took place in 2017 and 2020. Sipri’s trend-indicator value (TIV) measures transfers of military capability rather than mere financial values of conventional arms sales. The record shows 276 million TIV and 349 million TIV in 2017 and 2020, respectively. The figure that came closest was 2016–a year shared by Aquino and Duterte — when 230 million TIV was posted.
Carpio may be a former justice, but he and the opposition should do even basic ground research from wider sources than their own party’s speculations, to be fair to the people, to any government, and to themselves as well. Instead of debating on politics, unverified and unproductive fearmongering, the greater need of our Filipinos is to have their livelihoods and opportunities ramped up.
Austin Ong has assisted the Department of Trade and Industry in helping Filipino exporters become more globally competitive. He studied in Northeastern Boston, University of the Philippines-Diliman, and Tsinghua University and taught globalization and development at De La Salle University. He co-authored “PH-CN: Interplay Between Domestic Politics and Globalization.”
Also published in Manila Times on May 09, 2021. We welcome logical feedback and possibly working together with compatible frameworks (email@example.com).