By Philippine Daily Inquirer
Very gingerly, the Philippines and China have taken the first steps to mend fences following last month’s International Court of Arbitration ruling against China’s claim to almost the entire South China Sea.
President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to send Fidel V Ramos as special envoy to pave the way for talks with China – or at least break the ice for now – is a good move, given the former president’s stature and his well-known advocacy for closer Philippines-China relations. The gesture appears to have been welcomed by Beijing as well, after a barrage of nationalistic sabre-rattling over the Hague arbitral court’s ruling in the government-controlled press.
Working fast, Ramos had a two-day meeting in Hong Kong with Fu Ying, chair of the foreign affairs committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s legislature, and Wu Shichun, president of China’s National Institute of South China Sea Studies. Described as a meeting of “old friends … in a friendly atmosphere”, the get-together was informal rather than official but was acknowledged by Beijing. If the thaw holds, perhaps the two countries can soon move to official talks on the maritime dispute.
If and when that happens, the Philippines would have to go into the talks respectful but resolute. It’s a fact that China has ramped up its militarisation of the region in the wake of the ruling in The Hague, in turn spurring other claimant countries like Vietnam to commit more military resources of their own to defending their claims. China’s move to launch a satellite that “will be very useful in safeguarding the country’s maritime rights and interests” is but the latest provocation.
China has also flexed muscle in other ways, such as swaying more vulnerable countries to its side via naked inducements. Cambodia, the youngest member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China’s closest ally in the regional grouping, reportedly received a $600-million grant from its giant neighbour one week before the Asean meeting in Vientiane.
In that gathering, even as the arbitral court’s ruling loomed large as a definitive international statement on important issues for Asean claimants Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei, Cambodia’s refusal to sign a collective declaration that referred to the ruling resulted in another emasculated Asean statement.
Cambodia is not even a claimant, so its wielding of a veto in the consensus-based bloc on behalf of a non-member patron country can be seen as fundamentally undermining Asean’s founding principle of strict non-interference in its member-countries’ affairs.
Asean has already signed up to an ambitious plan to create a European Union-style single market of goods, labour and services that it hopes will eventually serve as a counterweight to the economic might of its behemoth neighbours China and India. That envisioned Asian power bloc will not happen if Asean’s member-countries busy themselves with distractions while refusing to look squarely at the most pressing issue on the table. That issue will have paramount impact on their dreams of economic dominance: regional security.
Before any genuine economic integration can take hold, Asean needs to find its voice. It needs to do its own internal integration to be able to forge a stronger collective spine against an aggressive, affluent neighbour that seems intent on giving no quarter.