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Lucio Blanco Pitlo III says Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte is well placed to navigate his country’s new role as Asean-China coordinator, having bolstered ties with South China Sea littoral countries, including China, since he took office

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 05 September, 2018, 7:55pm

As the Philippines assumes the role of country coordinator for relations between the Association of Southeast Nations and China for the next three years, there is cause for both optimism and apprehension.

Recent agreement on a single draft negotiating text as the basis for further code of conduct negotiations demonstrate welcome progress in peacefully resolving the South China Sea disputes. Broadening areas of cooperation with China, particularly in the fields of infrastructure, renewable energy, tourism, investments and agriculture, are also expected.

However, improved Philippines-China relations generate worries that Manila will refrain from calling out Beijing’s expanding military footprint in the contested sea and will continue to play down the value of the 2016 International Court of Arbitration award in favour of the Philippines against China over features in the South China Sea. 

There has been notable progress in the handling of the South China Sea disputes in the past two years. A code for unplanned encounters at sea, hotline communications, a code of conduct framework and naval exercises are noteworthy regional accomplishments. In bilateral terms, a joint coastguard committee for maritime cooperation and a high-level bilateral consultation mechanism was established between the Philippines and China, and proposals for joint exploration for oil and gas are under negotiation.

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Going by this positive trajectory, there is reason for optimism. Indeed, the political climate, especially better relations between key claimants in the South China Sea, has become more conducive to dispute management. However, it is still too early to celebrate. Fishing and routine patrol incidents will test these nascent confidence-building measures. Functional cooperation has to win domestic approval and the involvement of concerned littoral states.

The Philippines is expected to build on these recent milestones. As a claimant state, it could help shepherd a consensus towards a binding and effective code of conduct soon. The Duterte administration’s attempts to cultivate good relations with fellow Asean members and China will be helpful in this regard.

Watch: The South China Sea dispute explained

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visited all South China Sea littoral states in his first six months in office and all the Asean capitals in his first nine months in office. His first state visit was to Asean leader Indonesia, fresh from attending the 2016 Asean Summit in Laos. He actively worked with his Indonesian and Malaysian counterparts to set up trilateral naval and aerial patrols to combat piracy in their adjoining Sulu-Sulawesi seas.

Furthermore, as a goodwill gesture, Duterte personally led the send-off of Vietnamese fishermen caught in Philippine waters in 2016 and 2017. His second state visit was to Hanoi, coinciding with the 40th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The former Davao mayor also broke tradition by choosing China, the biggest claimant in the South China Sea, as the first major power to visit. To date, he has made three trips to China. The fiery leader was also a keynote speaker at the 2017 World Economic Forum in Cambodia and at the 2018 China-sponsored Boao Forum in Hainan.

Duterte can bank on these trust-building and goodwill investments as his country takes the reins of Asean-China coordinator from Singapore. Enhanced relations with Beijing also enable Duterte to frankly criticise China’s actions in the South China Sea without rupturing bilateral ties or stirring regional tensions.

Aside from continued confidence-building and dispute management, marine environment preservation and marine resource cooperation are expected to get a boost under the Philippines’ watch. Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said much can be done to promote a “healthy marine ecology” and “a safe marine environment”, aspects that all Asean members have a stake in.

Although its record is checkered, Manila is no stranger to these two areas. As early as 1994, the Philippines and Vietnam entered into a Joint Oceanographic and Marine Scientific Research Expedition in the South China Sea. The first phase, from 1996 to 2007, concluded with four expeditions and involved hundreds of scientists and officials from both sides. China was invited to participate in the second phase.

In 2004, Philippines and China signed a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking which became a trilateral agreement, with Vietnam joining in 2005. This cooperation, however, was discontinued because of domestic opposition arising from alleged irregularities, conflict with national laws and perceived disadvantages. However, increasing energy insecurity is reviving the salience of such endeavours.

Domestic and regional reactions will influence the Philippines’ role as Asean-China coordinator. Manila will balance local pressure to take up the arbitration ruling with the region’s desire to manage disputes and expand areas of cooperation with China. Long-running cooperation with established partners will also stifle attempts to restrict security ties with extra-regional powers, a position that is likely to be shared by other Asean members.

Though still enjoying remarkable political capital and relatively free of corruption baggage, the Duterte government will face checks from domestic opposition on unsound resource cooperation arrangements with China. That said, confidence-building and functional cooperation will continue to garner regional support and traction.

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, a lecturer on Chinese Studies at Ateneo de Manila University and contributing editor (reviews) for the Asian Politics & Policy Journal. He also sits on the Board of the Philippine Association for China Studies

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