True diplomacy happens when two countries freely discuss matters of mutual interest, and are able to come to an agreement on matters of mutual benefit.
The aforementioned mantra is apropos to describe an ideal outcome in Philippines-China relations. After all, as a neighbor, shouldn’t we be able to talk to China freely, at any time?
Knowing this, it is useful to talk about the Aquino presidency and China because the mistakes made during that period had set irreversible precedents both countries may not have intended to commit. That said, we venture that Aquino’s China strategy was a set of blunders that ought not to be repeated.
The biggest blunder was that for all intents and purposes, China stopped talking to us and did as they pleased under the cover of a massive insult against them afforded by the international tribunal proceedings. It simply saw no need to be friendly to us while the case in The Hague progressed.
Imagine losing a conversation with a neighbor? Having lost face, they went ahead and built their structures, a united front against Western intrusion into Asian affairs.
Remember how ASEAN failed to issue a joint communiqué on this issue sometime last July? ASEAN countries have strong economic relationships with China; they conceivably placed more weight on this than any pressure from a weakened United States or Europe. On the other hand, these two continents wanted—and they still do—freedom of navigation for THEIR ships so that they could continue their profitable trade WITH CHINA.
Roilo Golez’s recent comments from Vietnam offer little comfort to shore up the past government’s China policy because the last time we checked, the Chinese have not built structures and because the Vietnamese offered actual resistance against Chinese incursions.
We did not.
The Golez revelations instead only damn the Aquino government even more, and stain the reputation former foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario was trying to build.
The truth is that under Noynoy Aquino, we went to the Hague to ask for paper declarations on something we already knew but neglected to defend ourselves in the real sense.
To please the lobbyists that advocate for the interests of a country 3,000 miles away? Whose economy thrives on mongering and carrying out wars taking place a world away from theirs? As they dropped their biggest non-nuclear bomb on an already ravaged Afghanistan, it’s clear to see that "making America great again" means projecting its military, and spending billions in US taxpayers’ money to employ the thousands working in its military-industrial complex, the network of suppliers and companies who make money off war.
Where did we go wrong on China?
It started when the then newly-elected President Aquino failed to issue a prompt apology to the Chinese government over the Manila Hotel bus hostage taking event. The three year pause before a proxy apology through Manila Mayor Joseph Estrada did little to appease Chinese public sentiment. As the talk over the West Philippine Sea issue escalated, they stopped buying our bananas and gave us the cold treatment, even strong words against our position in the West Philippine Sea issue.
While the rest of the world kept strengthening their ties with the Chinese, they stopped talking to us.
We couldn’t talk to them about things that we needed to tell them. And did the supposed back channeling by Senator Antonio Trillanes make things even worse? Did he force their hand to build those structures? Now that all is supposedly water under the bridge, the Senator will do well to reveal the details of his negotiations.
Against this backdrop, the International Tribunal’s arbitration victory for the Philippines proves phyrric, since by the time it was released, the structures were already in place. Did all the earnest efforts to get foreigners to affirm our positions only give the Chinese the opportunity to build?
The cold reality is that China’s military might and its ability to project its interests is such that even the United States is wary of directly confronting it – given the large amount it owes the Asian country. Heck, neither Obama nor Trump dared challenge the world’s largest airforce.
But President Duterte has studied these realities only too long. His track is to build a strong buffer of goodwill that enables understanding and cooperation. The ASEAN countries desire this of us.
In the end, taking China to international arbitration and wrangling an affirmation on Philippine sovereign rights may have felt like a PR victory for Aquino. But the fallout from such a move has proven strategically disastrous for the Philippine position he purported to push, because being a belligerent neighbor, he had given the Chinese greater justification to build more structures and organize greater Southeast Asian criticism against the Philippines, the very scenario we cannot afford to have and are now trying to repair.