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Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands after a signing ceremony in Beijing on October 20, 2016. Since taking office in 2016, Duterte has championed an “independent foreign policy” that has distanced the country from its traditional ally, the US. Photo: AFP

China and the Philippines chart the course towards a calmer South China Sea

Zhen Ni says the thaw in relations between China and the Philippines suggests how other Asean countries could make progress in resolving differences over the waters

Zhen Ni
How a constructive framework for the  South China Sea issue can be built is one of the burning questions facing the world today. The improvement of  China-Philippines relations in the past few years provides a useful case study.
For example, at the second meeting of the  bilateral consultation mechanism on the South China Sea between China and the Philippines on February 13 in Manila, vice-foreign ministers from both sides discussed cooperation in the areas of fisheries, oil and gas, marine scientific research and environmental protection. The establishment of working groups in these areas shows that China-Philippines relations go beyond South China Sea disputes.
Since taking office, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has begun to build good relations with China, upholding an “independent foreign policy” to  decrease the influence of Washington. Scholars claim this is a “hedging strategy” used by small states to take advantage of big powers, but as time goes by, it has become clear that Duterte realises the value of ties with China. The improvement in bilateral relations will contribute to stability in the South China Sea and promote prosperity in the region.
Pag-asa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea off the coast of western Philippines. Photo: AP 
Right after the 50th Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers’ meeting, Philippine foreign secretary Alan Peter Cayetano told the press on August 8, 2017 that China had played “a very positive role in the region” and that China’s strong economy had fuelled growth in Southeast Asia. 

Cayetano also stressed the need to maintain stability in the region by focusing on positive development, adding that there is now relative peace in the South China Sea. “I can honestly say that the relationship of Asean and China has improved and been strengthened over this ministerial meeting,” he said.

Filipino Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano (left) passes on a handwritten letter from President Rodrigo Duterte to Chinese President Xi Jinping during a meeting with Chinese Foreign Minster Wang Yi, in Beijing on March 21. Photo: EPA-EFE

The improvement in the China-Philippines relationship has raised the possibility of building a constructive framework for resolving tensions in the South China Sea. Today, all the related parties can talk to each other in a more relaxed and friendly manner than a few years ago.

There are three important experiences that could contribute to further developments in the region. 

The improvement of the China-Philippines relationship makes it less appropriate for the US to intervene in the South China Sea dispute
First, the China-Philippines effort tried to close the windows that allowed “ outside powers” to play a role in resolving issues in the region. The improvement of the bilateral relationship makes it less appropriate for the US to intervene in the South China Sea dispute, either in the name of  freedom of navigation or protecting the small Asean states from the new “hegemony” in the region. It greatly eases tensions in the South China Sea on a strategic level and lessens the possibility of military conflict.

All Asean countries certainly benefit from a safer region, enabling them to focus on economic development instead of preparing for war. 

Second, the recent China-Philippines relationship opens up a pragmatic way to build confidence. The improvement in China-Philippine relations contributes greatly to building trust in the region, not only between Beijing and Manila, but also between China and other Asean countries. While the Philippines was once a vanguard against China in the South China Sea, now it has adopted a more constructive attitude. This has made other Asean members rethink relations with China.
Enhanced confidence facilitates progress in the consultation on the  code of conduct in the South China Sea, the framework of which was adopted by the Asean foreign ministers’ meeting last year in Manila. Asean countries are hopeful that when the code of conduct is formally concluded, it will underpin regional stability and prosperity.

Last but not least, the China-Philippines experience shows the value of trying to push forward the improvement of regional and bilateral relations at the same time because the two cannot be separated. China and the Philippines both benefit from an improved bilateral relationship and the positive change in the South China Sea.

During  Duterte’s four-day visit to China in October 2016, 13 agreements on cooperation in areas ranging from maritime security to agriculture were signed, one of which was a memorandum of understanding between the Philippines’ Department of Trade and Industry and China’s Ministry of Commerce on strengthening bilateral trade, investment and economic cooperation. Besides, it has been a long time since there has been news of  fishermen being caught by the coastguard of either country.

However, it’s still too early to tell if the current positive momentum will continue. Soon after the Lunar New Year, an “outside power” announced it will resume freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea, casting a cloud over the region again. Nevertheless, the improvement of the China-Philippine relationship sets a good example for a practical way towards building a stable, secure and prosperous South China Sea.

Dr Zhen Ni is an invited research fellow at the Research Centre for Cyberspace Governance at Fudan University

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Setting course for calmer waters in South China Sea