Philippine president's clash with China over islands divides analysts

President got top marks on the domestic front but not all backed Scarborough Shoal stand-off

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 December, 2012, 4:00am

Philippine President Benigno Aquino's confrontation with China over Scarborough Shoal - known as Huangyan Island by Beijing - divided analysts in Manila, but he scored top marks on the domestic front this year.

The islands of Scarborough Shoal, within the Philippines' 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, are claimed by China.

"I think the Philippines overreached on this issue," said Amado Mendoza, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines. "I think we have been quite rash in confronting China, which is viewed globally as a rising dragon. The more prudent behaviour is to hedge between the US and China."

The Aquino administration "was too aggressive. It relied on an asset [the US] which it thought was there but was not there ... and it misaligned itself vis-a-vis its Asean members".

He said that at an Asean meeting in Phnom Penh, Aquino asked that a west Philippine Sea resolution be put to a vote. "That should never have happened because it is not the Asean way. As a result, the Philippines lost 8-2, with only Vietnam backing it."

The key, he said, was to form a long-term plan because "our reaction is short-term and tactical and we rely on improvisation, whereas China has a long history of strategic thinking".

But Billy Esposo, the widely read political columnist from The Philippine Star, did not share Mendoza's view. Esposo said: "I think Aquino is adopting the best possible position in protecting our interests by holding China at bay by playing close to the US. It's the only game we really have.

"It's either we kowtow to the Chinese and they eat us alive or we use the balancing force, which is our relationship with the US." He said a positive development in Manila's favour "are the moves of India and Japan - they are now starting to also worry about China and I think there are other Asean countries willing to confront China on the issue".

He disagreed at calling the Scarborough Shoal stand-off a misstep "because you can't control China. You can't do anything to stop them if they really want to use brute force".

Both agreed, however, that Aquino erred in backing passage of an anti-cybercrime law which aims to punish online libel more severely than current laws and gives the government the power to set up what internet law expert Jose Disini said was akin to "the great internet wall of China".

In October, the Philippine Supreme Court suspended implementation of the law for 120 days while it decides if certain provisions violate civil liberties.

Still, both analysts called 2012 a banner year for Aquino.

Aquino managed to get the chief justice, Renato Corona, sacked in an impeachment trial. Twenty out of 23 senators judging the matter found Corona guilty of betraying public trust by not disclosing all his wealth as required by the constitution.

Both analysts said Aquino also achieved what two previous presidents failed to do. He has not been tainted by corruption and the country's sovereign rating has improved for the first time to just below investment grade. He also persuaded Muslim rebels to sign an interim peace deal and got Congress to pass three landmark laws.

First was a reproductive health law enabling the state - despite objections from the Catholic Church - to offer free contraceptives to poor couples. Second was an increase in alcohol and tobacco tax that could result in 33.96 billion pesos (HK$6.4 billion) in extra revenue. Third was the passage of Asia's first "Anti-Enforced or Involuntary Disappearance Act", enabling punishment for the abduction and torture of political dissenters.

However, Mendoza, who was jailed and tortured during the Marcos dictatorship, warned that "the law could easily become a dead letter law" through non- implementation.