Beijing and Manila should navigate around their differences

Zha Daojiong says economic interdependence has been shown to be key

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 April, 2013, 3:23am


Related topics

China's relations with the Philippines are clearly asymmetrical and events since President Benigno Aquino's trip to Beijing in 2011 do not bode well for peaceful bilateral and regional development - a fundamental task of both governments. Efforts are needed on both sides to avoid a downward spiral.

Differences exist on several levels (besides the usual measures of power, including size of gross domestic product and military might). First there are the ways of thinking. In China, there is a discernable conviction in the value of setting aside long-term and politically explosive differences such as maritime territorial disputes while pursuing co-operation in less controversial areas.

For instance, Aquino's 2011 visit came at a time of renewed interest in Southeast Asia over South China Sea sovereignty issues. Yet China sought co-operation to address development challenges in other areas. In the Philippines, it seems, there is a tendency to think that highlighting differences can be a source of strength when bargaining with a diplomatic partner.

The second concerns whether a third party is perceived to be involved in Sino-Philippine security relations, be it the United States, Japan, or even the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In China, there is a powerful school of thought that Manila's maritime diplomacy action stems from instructions or directions from Washington or Tokyo. Such thinking, unfortunately, ignores the domestic complexities within Philippine society.

On the other hand, some in the Philippines perhaps view their nation as a significant third party in Sino-US security dynamics; that is also too simplistic. Often, talk of "triangular relationships" is the result of academic and journalistic analysis. At the end of the day, how the US and China approach each other is above all rooted in their respective domestic agendas; Southeast Asian needs probably feature little in calculations about Sino-American relations.

As a result of all this, China and the Philippines could both be tempted to second-guess the other. And when one side sees a particular matter as a priority, but that feeling is not reciprocated, mutual trust may suffer.

Third, there is a cultural aspect in reconciling disputes. China's diplomats, scholars and journalists are less effective than those in the Philippines when it comes to framing developments in bilateral relationships in the international media. The Philippines, for example, appears apt at portraying itself as the vulnerable party.

Last, the level of economic interdependence between the two nations is low, partly as a result of economic geography and history, and the lower standing of Chinese corporations among global competitors. Tied to this is the lack of business and professional networks, which have yet to get beyond the controversial role of ethnic Chinese communities in Philippine society.

If the evolution of Sino-US relations offers a pointer, it is that with growth in economic interdependence comes a rise in resistance - on both sides - to any escalation of differences over a "high security" issue. The same is true of the development of ties between China and other US security allies in Asia, such as Japan, Australia and Singapore.

Maritime disputes are harder to resolve than those on land, partly because multiple parties may wish to set out their own justifications for claims. Setting a timetable for resolving the South China Sea dispute makes good diplomatic sense. But the domestic political dictates of each claimant country are such that a resolution - in the form of boundaries drawn on a map - will be almost impossible. Instead, the best way forward is to manage those differences.

Zha Daojiong is a professor of international political economy at the School of International Studies, Peking University