New president may reshape the Philippines relationship with China
Beijing’s assertiveness in the South China Sea and Philippines security has dominated foreign policy discussion among the leading candidates for president. And that’s why Beijing’s diplomats have been keen to hold talks with them.
“The Chinese Embassy [in Manila] has talked to all the presidential candidates, in the same way that the United States Embassy has always reached out to them,” Ramon Casiple, executive director of the Institute of Political and Electoral Reforms explained.
Casiple was of the opinion that of the top four candidates “all, except one would be welcome to China”.
Welcome he said, would be front runner Davao mayor Rodrigo Duterte, Senator Grace Poe and Jejo-mar Binay, the country’s current vice- president. The man who would be persona non grata would be Mar Roxas, President Benigno Aquino’s chosen successor.
Calls to the Chinese Embassy in Manila for comment went unanswered yesterday.
Aquino’s government has angered China by indirectly challenging its claims at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague. China has refused to recognise the court’s authority or abide by the ruling, which is expected soon.
Roxas aside, the three other candidates have all said they would be open to bilateral negotiations with China on the issue. This marks a departure from Aquino’s multilateral negotiations policy.
Roxas said he would stick to that strategy.
When Aquino won the presidency in 2010, then-Chinese ambassador Liu Jianchao was among the first foreign envoys to congratulate him. But Casiple noted that this time, China’s interest in the outcome of the election is even keener.
And the candidate who appears to be most accommodating to China is Duterte, the tough-talking mayor of Davao City.
He said recently: “We cannot defeat you [China]. We will be pulverised if we go to war.” So, instead, Duterte suggested: “Let us do it joint [oil and gas] exploration.”
But he also boldly suggested he could ride a jet ski out to one of China’s new island airfields and plant the Philippines flag – a move that would not go down well with Beijing.
“If worse comes to worst, I will not waste the lives of Filipino soldiers,” Duterte promised. “I will go to the boundary line, myself; maybe have someone take me there, and I will go there on my own with a jet ski, bringing along with me a flag and a pole and once I disembark, I will plant the flag on the runway and tell the Chinese authorities: ‘Kill me.’ Don’t kill the soldiers.”
China has been constructing man-made islands and reefs in the South China Sea, complete with airstrips and docking facilities, and many worry that Beijing will soon start construction work at a new location, the Scarborough Shoal.
Last weekend, Duterte accused Aquino and ally Senator Antonio Trillanes of committing treason when Aquino intervened in attempts by a retired military officer to occupy the shoal in 2012 in favour of back channel talks with China involving Trillanes.
“After the 16 trips [by Trillanes], China started to construct [on the Scarborough Shoal],” Duterte said.
Duterte’s allies filed treason and espionage charges against both Aquino and Trillanes before the Office of the Ombudsman last Friday.