Opinion | South China Sea doesn’t have to define Sino-Philippine relations

Nevertheless, Marcos was adamant that he wasn’t interested in joining an anti-China alliance, but was instead acting purely defensively. Manila’s foreign policy moves were simply “reactions to what has happened in the South China Sea, to the aggressive actions that we have had to deal with”, he said.

By reiterating his country’s benign intentions and a commitment to diplomatic engagement with China, Marcos provided a path towards de-escalation.

The Philippines could also ease tensions by reconsidering any massive expansion in American soldiers on its soil, or the introduction of Japanese troops, especially in areas close to Taiwan. In turn, Beijing could dial down its aggressive interceptions of Philippine patrols and resupply missions in the South China Sea.

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Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Moreover, it’s high time both countries welcomed expanded economic cooperation, especially given the relative dearth of big-ticket Chinese investments in the Philippines compared to other Southeast Asian peers.
Just over a year ago, Marcos landed in Beijing for his first major state visit – ahead of visits to Washington and Tokyo – signalling continuity with his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, and his commitment to a “new golden era” with China.

But both sides emerged with different interpretations of the visit. For China, it represented the first step of a long diplomatic dance with a new Filipino president who had sent mixed signals throughout his election campaign. In the Philippines, the visit ended up strengthening China hawks in the administration, facilitating a major foreign policy reboot.

Marcos had expected more clarity on the fate of unfulfilled Chinese infrastructure investments, a potential joint-energy exploration deal in Reed Bank and a tangible compromise over disputed features such as Second Thomas Shoal and Scarborough Shoal.

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Why is the Philippines aligning itself with the US after years of close China ties under Duterte

Why is the Philippines aligning itself with the US after years of close China ties under Duterte

To his disappointment, there was no breakthrough, merely vague commitments and a reiteration of the need for enhanced communication channels. Realising he had little leverage with China, Marcos pressed ahead with revitalising strategic ties with traditional allies.
The upshot is the expansion of the EDCA, closer security cooperation with Japan and other like-minded regional powers, war games with allied states near the South China Sea and a general reorientation of the Philippine national security doctrine in favour of active maritime defence.
Philippine efforts at enhancing its strategic position, however, ended up reinforcing China’s fears of encirclement. In response, Beijing stepped up its countermeasures in the South China Sea and warned Manila against “playing with fire”, especially by welcoming American military presence in its northernmost provinces, which are close to Taiwan’s shores.

The upshot is a perilous “security dilemma” dynamic, with each side inadvertently escalating tensions by ostensibly acting in self-defence. Instead, both sides should consider the following quid pro quo confidence-building measures:

On its part, the Marcos administration can recalibrate the parameters of the EDCA, namely the size and nature of America’s military presence in the northern Philippine provinces. It should also reconsider granting the Pentagon access to strategic bases, including in Mavulis near Taiwan or Thitu Island in the Spratlys, while reassessing any plans to grant Japanese troops rotational access to Philippine military facilities.

This could go hand in hand with the relocation and reorientation of some of the major Philippine-US military drills near the South China Sea and Taiwan.

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US and Philippines launch ‘biggest ever’ joint marine exercises near disputed waters

US and Philippines launch ‘biggest ever’ joint marine exercises near disputed waters

On its part, China has to accept the reality that the Dutertes are no longer in power and that any conventional Filipino president is in no position to compromise on core sovereign interests. After all, most Filipinos, along with the US-trained defence elite, favour a strong stance in the South China Sea in tandem with allies.

As the far weaker party, it’s natural for the Philippines to be wary of directly dealing with China without help from partners. After decades of neglecting its military, the Philippines is eager to expedite its defence modernisation programme and strengthen its strategic position, hence its assertive stance in the disputed waters.

Thus, Beijing should refrain from aggressive tactics in the South China Sea, which only reinforce anti-China sentiments, push Manila into Washington’s embrace and risk a region-wide armed conflict.

How Philippines’ domestic politics can affect South China Sea tensions

Above all, China and the Philippines should explore genuinely mutually beneficial economic deals, especially in public infrastructure development and manufacturing, which would go a long way in helping to de-escalate tensions.

After all, the maritime disputes should not be the defining dimension of Philippine-China relations. Neighbouring Vietnam, Malaysia and even Indonesia have shown it is possible for smaller littoral states to stand up for their maritime sovereign rights while also expanding fruitful economic cooperation with China.

The Philippines is intent on showing it is not a pushover, but is also signalling its willingness to pursue a mutually beneficial understanding with China. Effective management of the South China Sea disputes will allow China to display its benevolence as a regional superpower and provide the foundation for regional peace and prosperity.

Richard Heydarian is a Manila-based academic and author of Asia’s New Battlefield: US, China and the Struggle for Western Pacific, and the forthcoming Duterte’s Rise

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