By Richard Javad Heydarian
Over the past few months, President Rodrigo Duterte has consistently lavished Beijing with praise – often with commendable prose. When China recently offered a $200-million aid package for victims of the earthquake in Surigao as well as for agricultural development schemes, our leader was even sentimental, telling the Filipino people: “You can really see the sincerity of Chinese, so let me publicly again thank President Xi Jinping and the Chinese people for loving us.”
In fact, Duterte didn’t shun waxing poetic, praising China for “giving [the Philippines] enough leeway to survive the rigors of economic life in this planet.” Later this year, in May, he is set to visit China to meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the One Belt, One Road (OBOR), also known as the New Silk Road initiative, summit.
The Bank of China has fixed its sight on 19 major projects in the Philippines, amounting to as much as $50 billion. There could be other large-scale projects funded by China’s answer to the World Bank, the newly established Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). And these could just be the tip of the iceberg, since tens of billions of dollars in businessmen-to-businessmen investments are potentially on the horizon.
Without question, China is putting all sorts of cookies on the table to express its gratitude for the Duterte administration’s more “pragmatic” policy in the South China Sea: namely, the decision of the incumbent to effectively set aside the arbitration award at The Hague in the interest of rebuilding frayed diplomatic ties with Beijing.
Duterte’s decision to scale back military cooperation with America, especially those that were targeted with thin disguise at China, has pleased China even more. Some strategists in China hope that they can entice the Philippines fully out of the American strategic orbit by offering too-good-to-reject goodies.
With Duterte assuming the rotational leadership of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, giving him the power to set the regional agenda, the Philippines has become even more important in the eyes of China. At this juncture, both countries are looking at the prospect of a new “golden age” in their bilateral relations, facilitated by friendly dialogue and booming economic ties.
All looks fine, except when one looks at China’s actions in the Philippines’ eastern and western waters. In the West Philippine Sea, China continues to exercise administrative control over the Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal. Filipino fishermen can barely access the surrounding waters of the shoal and are still barred from entering the lagoon within the shoal, which is not only a haven for tired and stranded fishermen, but is also rich in fisheries resources.
Meanwhile, the presence of Chinese vessels near the Reed Bank (Recto Bank) has discouraged investors from exploring the hydrocarbon-rich area, which is crucial to ensuring the Philippines’ energy security, especially with the Malampaya plant set to go into permanent retirement in the next decade. China’s reclamation activities in the Spratlys (Kalayaan Islands) have gone unabated, giving birth to a sprawling network of airbases and military facilities in the middle of a vast blue ocean.
No less than Secretary of Defense Delfin Lorenzana has repeatedly warned about the prospect of Chinese reclamation activities on the contested shoal, which he has described as “unacceptable” because it is too close to the Philippines for comfort. And more worryingly, the defense chief has warned about suspicious Chinese activities in the Benham Rise, which is part of the Philippines continental shelf.
The key question at this point is: Does China think that because it is offering huge economic incentives, the Philippines is willing to go soft on its territorial claims and sovereign rights in the Pacific Ocean and the South China Sea? I think it is time for the Duterte administration to make things clear before any potential misunderstanding translates into a full-blown crisis in the near future.