South China Sea Dispute Tests Philippines’ Ties With China

This week a huge trade show opens in Nanning, China, focusing on promoting ties between Southeast Asian countries and their largest trading partner, China. However, for the second year in a row, the Philippine president is not attending, following another tense year in the South China Sea.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Spokesman Charles Jose said an agreement in 2011 between President Benigno Aquino and then President Hu Jintao is what guides Manila’s relations with Beijing.

“Both countries should not let the territorial dispute affect the overall relationship.  So on the part of the Philippines, we are willing to extract and isolate our territorial dispute and deal with this separately, but at the same time we try to promote and strengthen the other areas of our cooperation with China,” said Jose.

Three years ago, there was no Scarborough Shoal standoff and no pending case at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. At the time, the Philippines had only filed a string of diplomatic protests against China, which claims “indisputable sovereignty” over practically the entire South China Sea.

In 2012, China effectively took control of Scarborough after a tense months-long standoff between vessels of the two countries in waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.   

A year later, Manila filed an arbitration case questioning China’s sweeping claims in the resource-rich sea.  Beijing rejects arbitration and has not responded to the case.

Last year, the Philippines was the designated “country of honor” at the China ASEAN Expo in Nanning, but Philippine officials say President Aquino was uninvited because of the arbitration filing.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila declined a formal interview request from VOA to discuss the relationship.

Rommel Banlaoi, executive director of the Manila-based Philippine Institute for Peace Violence and Terrorism Research, said the sea dispute is hindering relations.

“It’s still in a very sour political state. The relationship is still at its lowest point,” said Banlaoi.

Still, the foreign affairs spokesman said, trade and tourism between the two countries remains strong.

Official Philippines’ data shows that in the past three years tourism arrivals from China increased, with a 70 percent jump from 2012 to 2013. Last year 426,000 of the country’s 4.6 million tourists came from China.

Philippine exports to China were slightly higher than imports from China in 2011 and 2013. But the Philippines took a hit in 2012 after China imposed requirements on its bananas entering the country. Observers say this may have been linked to the standoff.

Banlaoi called the tourism increase “miniscule” and said Manila has been losing out on Beijing’s ability to aggressively promote international travel. Besides, he added, more Filipinos invest in China than the other way around.

“The Philippines could have been one of the major destinations of China’s investment in Southeast Asia…  China has this policy of the Maritime Silk Road… The Maritime Silk Road aims to intensify China-Southeast Asia economic relationships through increased investment and through enhanced trade and commercial relationships. The Philippines is not part of that,” said Banlaoi.

Banlaoi noted neighboring Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and other countries in the region are participating. 

Earlier this month, China’s foreign ministry warned its citizens to avoid visiting the Philippines following a foiled bomb plot allegedly targeting the Chinese embassy and Chinese-Filipino owned businesses.

Banlaoi called the potential for violent incidents like the bomb plot a “major concern” since they can fuel nationalistic sentiment and pressure governments to take a harder stance.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs spokesman Jose said the office reassured the Chinese government the country is taking measures to ensure safety of their embassy personnel.

While ships from the two countries jockey for position in remote islands of the South China Sea, and officials in the capitals keep up the heated rhetoric, some analysts think the situation will largely remain the same, mostly because of the Aquino administration’s push to expand its military relationship with Washington.

Renato De Castro of De La Salle University in Manila said that relationship is viewed skeptically in Beijing.

“For them, President Aquino and Foreign Secretary [Albert] del Rosario are basically pro-American. That’s how they view it… they’re puppets. They’re being manipulated by the United States. If they’re removed, if they’re gone, everything will go well,” said De Castro.

De Castro thinks China is simply waiting out the end of Aquino’s term in 2016 in hopes of returning to normal relations with the Philippines. But he said for right now, Manila is doing a poor job of balancing its ties to both superpowers.

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