January 9, 2023
MANILA – The issues between our two countries are problems that do not belong between two friends such as Philippines and China.” Thus said President Marcos Jr. last week as he departed for a state visit to Beijing where he sought to resolve outstanding issues — foremost of which is the dispute over the West Philippine Sea — “to the mutual benefit” of both nations.
He is correct, in a manner of speaking.
China’s behavior in the matter of its continued aggressive occupation of territory well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea has no place in a relationship among true friends, for no true friend would treat another as shabbily as they have treated us in this regard.
Indeed, what friend would, not only claim as its own but, actually occupy large swathes of maritime territory that the international community recognizes and has ruled belongs to the other? And what so-called friend would try to win the other over with promises of billions of dollars worth of investments without rectifying its original offense?
China is that kind of “friend,” apparently. But it doesn’t have to be a friend only in name as it has been these past few years.
Our two nations can have a real friendship—in the truest sense of the word—where the needs of both are sufficiently addressed to each other’s mutual benefit and satisfaction.
Beijing can do this by stepping back from its belligerent occupation of the South China Sea and stopping blocking the access of more legitimate claimants like the Philippines into the area.
The commitment of the leaders of both countries to work toward allowing Filipino fishermen to practice their livelihood in these bountiful waters unimpeded will be a key test of China’s ability to put its money where its mouth is.
Making this happen would be an important first step toward normalizing strained relations if that is the intention of both sides, and a key signal of goodwill from a country that has shown little else but ill will toward ours in the disputed area in recent years.
If this works, the next step would be to hammer out an agreement toward exploring energy reserves in the South China Sea in a way that would allow both sides to invest in and profit from whatever oil or gas is found under the seabed, but without the Philippines yielding an inch of its sovereignty.
This would be a more delicate deal to craft but would go much further in buttressing China’s tenuous claims of benevolence toward its neighbors than the $22 billion in investments that were pledged to Mr. Marcos during his three-day visit.
It is worth mentioning that Chinese President Xi Jinping made similar commitments to President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016, but precious little of this promised amount became reality, so it is important to view such promises with skepticism.
Make no mistake about it: the Philippines is the aggrieved party in this long-running issue. Beijing’s aggressive outward territorial push, which started many years ago, into what should be our zone of economic influence was uncalled for and totally unprovoked (unless one would consider our historic ties with the United States a “provocation”).
As such, the onus to rectify the situation lies completely on China.
Despite all this, Mr. Marcos has literally gone the extra 1,781 miles to bridge the distance between Manila and Beijing to offer Xi a chance to do right by us and, in the process, show the rest of the world that China is worthy of the Great Power status which it desperately craves.
With this gesture of goodwill — presented by a country standing upright rather than on bended knee, as the previous dispensation had done — China now has a golden opportunity to show that its offers of friendship are more than just hollow words, as we have grown so accustomed to.
It is certainly worth noting the change of tone by Xi in his hosting of Mr. Marcos compared to the state visit of Duterte in 2017, during which the latter claimed Xi practically threatened to go to war should the Philippines go ahead with oil and gas exploration in the West Philippine Sea. But words are cheap.
Only if Beijing makes good on promises that have turned out to be, for the most part, more sour than sweet can both nations turn the page into the “new chapter” that Mr. Marcos has offered.
Otherwise, this new chapter will sound like a very tired retelling of the previous one through no fault of ours.
Of course, if China insists on maintaining its say-one-thing-but-do-another behavior, it does so at a significant risk of pushing the Philippines closer into the wide open arms of the US, which is the very challenge it has been trying to address with its bellicose stance in the region.
In this high-stakes game of international poker, the change in our country’s leadership means that the key players in Zhongnanhai can no longer afford to play their cards as recklessly as they did just a few years ago.
China’s leaders must tread more carefully this time around because they know that the Philippines holds an ace. And a country tired of empty rhetoric would be very willing to use it.