Avoiding China’s traps

Malcolm Cook

Posted on May 24, 2016

Incoming president Rodrigo Duterte has consistently called for a different approach to relations with China and the disputes in the West Philippine Sea than the one the Aquino administration adopted after China seized control of Scarborough Shoal in 2012.

Duterte has voiced support for a return to the Macapagal-Arroyo approach that led to a self-proclaimed “golden moment” in the bilateral relationship. Aquino’s predecessor placed primary focus on the bilateral commercial relationship and Chinese financing for infrastructure, and consented to secret bilateral negotiations and a joint development project in the West Philippine Sea.

This is undoubtedly welcomed by Xi Jinping as this is exactly the approach Beijing has long advocated. In seeking to remove Philippine-China relations from the deep freezer, the incoming Duterte administration should not accede to China’s approach to foreign relations and what Beijing refers to as “peripheral diplomacy.”

This approach has crystallized under the Xi Jinping regime and exhibits deepening shades of the historic “Middle Kingdom’s” system of suzerainty that placed China at the top over all other states the Emperor deigned to have relations with. President Duterte and his Foreign secretary should avoid three particular traps that come from accepting this world of diplomacy with Chinese characteristics.

First, Chinese diplomatic language often refers to bilateral relations as friendships. It is reported that China recently encouraged Indonesian authorities, as a gesture of their friendship, to keep secret the intrusion by a Chinese maritime surveillance vessel to forcefully free a Chinese fishing trawler caught by Indonesian authorities off the Natuna islands.

At the same time, Malaysian authorities discovered more than a hundred Chinese fishing vessels with attendant Chinese maritime surveillance craft operating in waters claimed by Malaysia off Sarawak. This, despite successive Malaysian administrations working hard to maintain friendly relations with China and downplaying their maritime rights’ disputes with China.

In 2014, a Chinese state-owned oil firm parked its largest oil rig, guarded by a flotilla of hundreds of Chinese ships, in waters claimed by Vietnam in a period of particularly friendly relations between the two countries’ ruling Communist parties. Friendships, with these characteristics, are decidedly one-way.

When China’s authoritarian regime feels that its friendship has not been reciprocated, it often claims that the feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese have been hurt and uses this unverified mass of offended citizens to justify harsh reactions against the offending nation. Norwegian salmon exporters and Japanese soccer fans can attest.

During the Aquino administration, Chinese interlocutors have repeatedly decried the decision of the Philippines to use its international legal rights to protect its maritime rights in the West Philippine Sea as an unfriendly and provocative act.

Many Southeast Asian experts and officials fall into this trap by counseling against any sovereign actions, even if legal and frequently used in other contexts, that may “annoy” or “antagonize” China. One rarely hears similar counsel in relation to any other state.

The second trap to avoid is China’s concept of economic cooperation and the corollary that Southeast Asian states should be grateful and recognize through diplomatic actions, the benefits China’s economic rise has provided their own economies. Economic cooperation and the claims for gratitude suggest that these commercial relations are altruistic in motive on the side of the Chinese actors.

Yet, market-based trade and investment flows are by definition not altruistic. Rather, they are self-interested and deserve no gratitude or favors given in other areas of the relationship. Moreover, firms trade with and invest in each other, governments do not. Contributions by foreign governments in times of disaster like supertyphoon Yolanda are arguably altruistic in nature and worthy of official gratitude and diplomatic consideration. Beijing’s Yolanda contributions speak for themselves.

The third trap is the increasingly frequent depiction by Chinese officials and state media of a world of large and small states with the Philippines relegated to the latter category. China’s foreign minister reminded the Southeast Asian states on China’s periphery of this imbalance and its determining nature at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi. Last year, in reference to the Philippine case at the Arbitration Tribunal filed in 2013, a Chinese foreign affairs ministry spokesperson protested that smaller states should not make “unreasonable demands.”

While the Philippines is definitely weaker than China, it is far from a small state. The Philippines is the world’s 12th largest country by population out of more than 190, the 29th largest economy in nominal terms, and the second largest archipelagic country after Indonesia. In global and regional terms, the Philippines is a large state and growing larger.

All states are equal in international law and international law helps moderate the effects of the power imbalances between states. More powerful states pressuring weaker ones not to avail themselves of their international legal rights or castigating them for doing so is unreasonable.

Better relations between the two countries definitely would be welcomed by many in the Philippines and beyond. In seeking these, the incoming Duterte administration should avoid these three traps to ensure that the improvement does not come largely at the cost of the Philippines.

Malcolm Cook is a senior fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and a visiting professor at Ateneo de Manila University’s Political Science Department where he taught full-time from 1997-2000.