Philippines not married to US, can still pursue China, says Manila’s top diplomat

The Philippines’ new foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, warns against Asean becoming ‘theatre of geopolitical rivalry’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 04 July, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 July, 2017, 11:39pm

The Philippines’ new foreign secretary, Alan Peter Cayetano, warned that “outside influences” could turn Southeast Asia into “a theatre of geopolitical rivalry” and that Manila’s relations with the US should not stop it from forging ties with China.

The 46-year-old made the comment in an interview with the South China Morning Post. He is a staunch ally of Duterte and was his vice-presidential running mate. A seasoned politician, Cayetano was reportedly involved in early negotiations with China on a series of multibillion-dollar deals shortly after Duterte was elected last year, according to Philippine media.

Midway through a year in which the Philippines has assumed the rotating chairmanship of Asean, Cayetano said a top challenge for Manila was keeping away external influences in the region.

“Another challenge will be influences from outside the region … making Asean a theatre for what we call geopolitical rivalry,” he said. Cayetano did not specify what he meant by outside influences, or whether he was referring to the ongoing competition between China and the US for influence among Asean countries.

Relations between Beijing and Manila have improved significantly since Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte took office last year and promised to put aside territorial disputes in exchange for trade and economic assistance from China.

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But Duterte has faced criticism both at home and internationally for being too soft on China over the disputes and has been seen as not having taken full advantage of the landmark tribunal award the Philippines won against China last year.

Manila’s rapprochement with Beijing also has been seen as posing a serious test to its traditional alliance with Western powers, including the US.

But Cayetano said Manila’s relationship with Washington was not a “marriage” that forbade it from pursuing close relations with other countries, such as China.

As the Philippines holds the chair of Asean this year, the country has come under even stronger scrutiny over whether it can balance its growing ties with China with the interests of other Southeast Asian claimant states.

“It’s difficult to balance when you yourself are a claimant,” the top Philippine diplomat said. “This means now that our president wears two hats: that of the president of Philippines but also that of the chair of Asean.”

But Cayetano said Manila would prioritise the goal of peace and stability in the region over individual nations’ interests.

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He defended the Duterte administration’s decision to put aside the tribunal ruling to seek greater trade with China. The Philippines actually has reinforced its claim over the disputed Scarborough Shoal by reaching fisheries and coastguard agreements with Beijing thanks to warmer ties between the countries, he said.

“People might not agree with this strategy (of putting aside territorial disputes in exchange for trade and economic assistance from China). But it is furthest from the truth to say that we have not capitalised on the victory,” Cayetano said.

The tentative fisheries and coastguard agreements reached in October covering the Scarborough Shoal, where the Philippines maintain’s a small garrison within view of a newly constructed Chinese naval base and airfield, as well as the reduced risk of military confrontation, were proof that the Duterte administration had adopted the right strategy of dealing with Beijing, Cayetano said.

The fishery agreement allows Philippine fishermen access to the Scarborough Shoal. The coastguard agreement led to the formation of a Joint Coastguard Committee on Maritime Cooperation and reciprocal visits between the two nations’ coastguards are scheduled for later this year.

As China and Asean move closer to completing a framework for a code of conduct in the disputed waters, some Asean diplomats and observers have expressed concern over whether the two sides can reach a binding code of conduct that curbs China’s efforts to reclaim and militarise other islands in the South China Sea.

But Cayetano cautioned against any attempts to “simplify” the discussions or view an agreement strictly as a legal framework.

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“In diplomacy, you look at the direction and the momentum,” he said. “So if the direction is that the relationship is getting worse, it doesn’t matter what legal mechanism you have, what laws you have passed, because bad relations will just lead you [to] finger pointing … and then to armed conflict and other kinds of conflicts and a world war will erupt.”

In the final months of the US presidency of Barack Obama, Duterte went on a tirade against the Obama administration’s criticism of the Philippine leader’s deadly anti-drugs campaign. Cayetano suggested that Manila still had a wait-and-see attitude towards Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who will visit the Philippines in November for a summit with Southeast Asian leaders.

“We look forward to working with [Trump’s] administration,” Cayetano said. “And let’s see what the [US] policy towards the region and Asean will be.”

During his first trip to China as foreign minister – and third since Duterte took power in June last year – Cayetano met his Chinese counterparts State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi, as well as Premier Li Keqiang.

Wang, who said the two countries had entered a “golden period” in their relations, told a joint press conference with Cayetano that China had become the Philippines’ biggest trading partner for the first time, and that Beijing strongly supported Duterte’s fight against drugs and terrorism.

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“China has supported us early on in all aspects of our fight against illegal drugs,” said Cayetano, citing Beijing’s decision last year to provide funding for a rehabilitation centre for Duterte’s anti-drugs campaign.

“[China has also] supported us [before] the Human Rights Council in the UN, while there are some countries who chose to view our problem from their point of view and have refused to believe that there is a connection between illegal drugs or narcotics and terrorism,” he said.

China on Wednesday delivered an unspecified consignment of military equipment, worth about 50 million yuan (US$7.4 million), to Manila to help its fight against an Islamist siege in the southern city of Marawi on Mindanao.

Cayetano said the assistance clearly demonstrated the political trust between the two countries as they deepen their cooperation on intelligence sharing and military training against terrorism.

“Since China has been gracious enough in many, many fields of cooperation without conditions, it has really sparked mutual trust,” he said.