Nervous times for US as Manila and Beijing forge closer ties
Any efforts to bring peace to the South China Sea or avoid conflict with the potential for dangerous escalation is to be welcomed
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte may cause uncertainty with undiplomatic rhetoric that he later backs away from, but his visit to China and talks with President Xi Jinping (習近平) remain not only a turning point in ties between Manila and Beijing, but a realignment in regional relationships that amounts to a significant shift in the Asia-Pacific balance of power.
The key initiative is a commitment to dialogue and consultation to resolve mutual problems, and in particular the launching of a bilateral mechanism to tackle territorial disputes in the South China Sea that have seriously damaged relations.
The two sides agreed to exercise self restraint in activities in the sea. There was no mention of the recent ruling in the Philippines’ favour by a tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration. Under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino, Manila had filed a case with the court after China restricted access to the Scarborough Shoal fishing grounds. The tribunal, whose jurisdiction was rejected by Beijing, ruled against China’s claim to most of the South China Sea.
Duterte has put trade and investment ahead of the issues raised by the judgment. Last week’s talks are said to have yielded US$24 billion in economic, investment and loan deals for the Philippines. If the outcome marks a genuine and lasting policy shift by Manila it could go some way to defusing tension that has been building in the South China Sea. Manila’s close links with the US had done nothing to thaw frosty relations with Beijing.
The turning of a new page in bilateral relations was captured in Xi’s widely reported reference to the two peoples as blood brothers. Despite Duterte’s announcement in Beijing of his “separation from the US” militarily and economically and realignment with China, analysts were right to call it a readjustment of a one-sided policy in Washington’s favour rather than a pivot towards Beijing. Duterte later clarified that he was not cutting ties with the US and that maintaining them would be in his country’s best interests.
The adjustment would ease the pressure on Beijing to respond to the US pivot towards Asia and pave the way for rebuilding the bilateral relationship. Any efforts to bring peace to the South China Sea or avoid conflict with the potential for dangerous escalation is to be welcomed. This is a sound first step from both sides. Nonetheless, the US and states in the region who have issues with China can be expected to be watching closely how the rapprochement between Manila and Beijing plays out.