Beijing-Manila ties won’t be swayed by Philippine domestic politics

By Ai Jun Source:Global Times Published: 2017/11/9 23:28:43

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Wednesday that at the upcoming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, he was considering asking China what its intentions are in the South China Sea and whether Southeast Asian nations would be allowed to freely navigate the disputed waters.

Why did Duterte, who has been avoiding public discussions on the matter over the past year, raised the issue at this moment? It probably has something to do with US President Donald Trump's imminent trip to the Philippines. During a speech he delivered Tuesday in front of Philippine marines, he said "we remain the best of friends with America."

Despite Duterte's previous irreverent tone toward the US, the Washington-Manila relationship is still the most crucial tie for Philippine diplomacy, given their traditional closeness in the field of politics, economy and the military. Moreover, the public in the two nations still hold the same attitude toward one another. It is an ace in Duterte's hand and Manila will keep playing it to maintain a balance among major powers while maximizing its own interests.

After Duterte assumed office, he stopped following Washington's playbook over the nation's relationship with Beijing. This turn also suited Manila's interests. China provided the Philippines substantial quantities of investment and assistance, becoming the latter's largest trading partner.

China and the Philippines are also jointly looking for ways to control the conflicts in the South China Sea. A bilateral consultation on the issue and a cooperation mechanism between the two sides' coast guards have been set up. Negotiations over possible fishing collaboration are underway.

Granted, divergences have not yet been settled. A thorough solution to the disputes over maritime delimitation in the South China Sea will hardly be seen any time soon. It is thus normal to hear controversies from time to time. Yet joint endeavors to develop beneficial cooperation while solving the differences through negotiations should not be disrupted. China has no intention to obstruct freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, and will not ask any nation to develop an exclusive relationship with it or establish a sphere of influence anywhere. But neither will it allow any force from outside the region to intervene in its territorial sovereignty.

In another new development, China and the Philippines reportedly will negotiate a military protocol to avoid maritime "miscalculation," according to Reuters. Negotiations in this regard are to be supported, however, we hope the issue won't be brought to an international platform.

In the future, Manila might alter its tone over the South China Sea issue for various reasons, including leadership changes and domestic pressure. But China's determination in this regard will not change.

Forging sound relationships in the neighborhood will be a vital task for Beijing in the years to come. It can be expected that after the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, neighborhood diplomacy will be one of the focal points of China's foreign policies.

If Duterte wants to bring up the South China Sea issue during the APEC meeting, that is his business. But he should think carefully what he will get from it.

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