From Oct 18 to 21, Philipine President Rodrigo Duterte paid a state visit to China, during which the two countries signed 13 agreements on cooperation, issued a joint communique, pushed bilateral ties back on track and opened a new chapter for their relations. As the joint communique said, the visit was a milestone: Just months back, China and the Philippines were bogged down in a fierce fight over the South China Sea arbitration. The abrupt turn is thus worth serious reflection.
First, is Duterte’s “direction change” a blessing or a curse? Many in the United States and Japan believe it would destabilize the South China Sea for Duterte to abandon his predecessor’s anti-China approach. The Japanese Sankei Shimbun, for instance, warned Duterte in an editorial that accomodating China will inevitably consolidate China’s dominance in the South China Sea, which will not only hurt Philipine national interests, but also disturb regional peace. Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said he would urge the Philippines to respect the ruling and cooperate with Japan and the US. Over the past six years, when Benigno Aquino III took a confrontational approach against China, tensions in the South China Sea escalated, instead of being pacified. It is Duterte’s resorting to dialogue that has led to the easing of tensions. As Australian ASPI researcher Graeme Dobell pointed out, although Duterte is an annoying man who does not follow regular rules, he has achieved exceptional outcomes on the South China Sea issue. At least the US no longer needs to risk coming into military conflict with China over a couple of isles and reefs there. Therefore, Duterte’s policy change on the South China Sea issue has actually contributed to regional peace, and is thus in the common interest of China, the US, the Philippines and other countries in the area.
Second, is dialogue and cooperation with China possible on the South China Sea issue? The US and Japan have been disseminating several misperceptions over the years: 1. China attempts to dominate the South China Sea; 2. instead of resolving disputes, dialogue will encourage China to be more aggressive in territorial expansion; 3. countries in and outside the region should unite against China and press it to surrender. Instigated by such notions, some claimant countries have forsaken their promises of restraint and dialogue under the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea , and ganged up with outsider countries to make troubles. The result has been escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Such misperceptions collapsed in the face of Duterte’s successful China visit. On one hand, neither the ruling nor US intimidation have made China succumb. On the contrary, Chinese resistance got stronger as outside pressures mounted. On the other hand, Duterte’s successful visit demonostrated that China is not only a willing dialogue partner, it has not conducted reclamation at the Huangyan Island, or bullied the Philippines with might, as Japanese and US media have clamored. Instead, it has pledged to make compromises based on the two countries’ traditional friendship. Therefore, on the South China Sea, we should cast aside misgivings and see that there is no way out if the two parties engage in confrontation. Only dialogue can resolve disputes.
Third, what role should the US play? US leaders have always proclaimed an American contribution to peace and stability in East Asia. However, in the wake of China’s growing influence in Southeast Asia, the US declared “the South China Sea involves American interests”, actively intervened in South China Sea disputes, and sabotaged China’s relations with Southeast Asian nations. For example, in the early days of Aquino’s presidency, when he indicated a willingness to enhance ties with China and an open attitude toward local officials’ call to renounce the US-Philippine Visiting Forces Agreement, the US dispatched multiple officials to lobby Manila, on one hand exaggerating the South China Sea issue’s threat and on the other hand promising massive military, economic aid, eventually pushing it appoint a new foreign minister and change its policy orientation. As China-Philippine relations continued to sour, the US signed an agreement enhancing defense cooperation, expanding military deployment in Southeast Asia. Holding high the banner of preserving “freedom of navigation” and “regional stability”, the US has actually been undermining stability in the area. Freedom of navigation and a stable East Asia is more important to China, a rising, developing country, than to the US. The “Road and Belt” initiative China has proposed is preoccupied with promoting freer, more convenient international exchanges. So, as the young American scholar Jared McKinney has advocated, the US should treat the South China Sea disputes as what they are, and let claimant countries resolves their disputes through sincere dialogue. Sadly, the US has not come to terms with this. It has instead sent warships to the Xisha Archipelago after Duterte’s visit.
Duterte’s China visit revealed that countries in the region are thirsty for stability, solidarity, and common development, and should be eager to eliminate the various misgivings regarding the South China Sea. Countries in and outside the area should cherish the positive effects of the visit and jointly preserve peace and stability in the South China Sea.