PRESIDENTIAL Spokesperson Salvador Panelo recently gave a statement on the Philippines’ arbitration case with regards to the West Philippine Sea. His statements were aimed at certain statements from China’s ambassador to the Philippines and the PRC’s adamant position that it will not concede its claims to the area.
“Neither are we changing our position, too. But it doesn’t mean that as friends, we cannot discuss that issue…” Panelo said about the Arbitration case. “It has to be discussed that’s why precisely there’s a mechanism for negotiation.”
This is an interesting development, because President Duterte has been hesitant to bring up the arbitration ruling early in his presidency. For him to change his mind now implies a change of heart, or at least the recognition that the Filipino public doesn’t like the PRC.
Now to be fair to the Chinese, they have made some gestures of goodwill towards Duterte and the country, but issues of sovereignty are more important than foreign direct investments and capital account surpluses. A country that undermines its sovereignty in favour of economics will eventually find itself without either of them.
Thus, the important point issue is not the arbitration case, or even Duterte’s foreign policy. It’s about the future of China-Philippine relations. And although the Philippines has always had an influential Chinese community, the Chinese state is another matter. For a very long time, the Chinese state has always considered itself as the center of the world; as the Middle Kingdom.
One could argue that the modern PRC, a state that is rooted in the egalitarian ideology of Maoism and Socialism, would never regard its neighbors as vassals and lesser states. I would argue that this is a naïve opinion. Powerful nations are aware of their power, and China – despite its many weaknesses – is a powerful nation. And powerful nations often like getting their way. They also like to throw their weight around.
So assuming that President Duterte was honest about his earlier statements about Russia and China, he was naïve to think that his positive rapprochement towards China early into his presidency would result in immediate reciprocity. It is in China’s interest to control the routes that allow it to buy and sell to the world. No amount of good positive rapprochement can change that. The only way that could change is if China decides to become autarkic again, and that’s not likely to happen in the future.
Thus, Duterte’s positive rapprochement towards China is quite tragic in many ways. Back in 2016, he wanted to realign the Philippines’ foreign policy towards Russia and China. In 2019, he is now trying to bring up an arbitration case that has been used as a geopolitical cudgel by the Aquino Administration. Duterte’s recent actions hint at disappointment and capitulation on his earlier goals, and although his administration is adamant that the Philippines and the PRC are on good terms, one can’t help but feel that Duterte’s efforts at Chinese rapprochement have not turned out too well./PN