Yasay’s sea remarks won’t derail ties with Manila: expert

By Yang Sheng Source:Global Times Published: 2017/2/26 23:38:39

The improved ties between China and the Philippines are unlikely to deteriorate despite controversial remarks by Philippine Foreign Secretary  Perfecto Yasay on the South China Sea, as Beijing is a vital partner for Manila in economic development, experts said.

Media had speculated that his remarks prompted the delay in a visit by the Chinese commerce minister which Manila hoped would deliver billions of dollars trade and investment. 

Yasay said Thursday at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Retreat on the Philippine island of Boracay that "any move by China to transform a Manila-claimed shoal into an island would be a game-changer," the Philippine Star reported. Yasay was referring to Huangyan Island in the South China Sea.

It would be "a very serious, provocative act" if China conducted any construction on Huangyan Island, which "would undermine the Philippine claim to the rich fishing area," Yasay said. On Tuesday, Yasay also said that Southeast Asian countries see China's installation of weapons systems in the South China Sea as "very unsettling and [we] want to prevent militarization," the Xinhua News Agency reported.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Thursday that "China hoped Yasay could follow the consensus reached by the two heads of states, speak and act prudently" and that his remarks also went against the common aspirations of regional countries in safeguarding peace and stability in the South China Sea.

Geng also announced Thursday that former  Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng's visit to the Philippines was postponed. According to previous reports, this visit was expected to cover about 40 joint projects worth billions of dollars.

Conflicting reasons

Two anonymous officials from the Philippine government claimed that Yasay's remarks angered China, which caused the postponement of the visit, the BBC reported. 

However, Philippine Ambassador to China Jose Sta. Romana said on the sidelines of the Philippines-China Investment Forum in Makati City on Friday that the new appointment of a Chinese commerce minister was the reason, not Yasay's statement, the Manila Bulletin reported.

"Yasay's offensive words will not fundamentally change the Sino-Filipino relationship, because the recovery in bilateral ties is based on mutual needs and common interests. The main thrust of the Sino-Philippine table," said Xu Liping, a research fellow at the National Institute of International Strategy of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

"The reason for the postponed visit is technical rather than political. But to some extent, it also serves as a warning to any Philippine official who wants to follow former Philippine president Benigno Aquino's policy on China," Xu said.

Xu said that Aquino still has influence in Manila, so it is hardly a surprise that some officials take a different line from Duterte. "China needs to keep calm and push the development of the bilateral relationship since it benefits both sides."

Damage control

During the investment forum, Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua also said the new commerce minister will visit the country to sign agreements of cooperation between China and the Philippines in March.

"The Philippines is an important party of the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road," Zhao said, noting that President Rodrigo Duterte will visit Beijing to attend the Belt and Road initiative international cooperation forum in May.

On Friday, Duterte sought to clarify Yasay's remarks to minimize the damage to the Sino-Philippine relationship, Reuters reported. Duterte said in a speech that China had "misunderstood" his foreign secretary's words and that he "wanted solid ties with China and there was no urgency in pressing it to abide by last year's arbitration ruling on the Philippines' maritime boundaries and sovereign rights."

 "Duterte has to maintain ties with China since only China can offer effective support to improve Philippine people's lives, especially in infrastructure construction," Chu Yin, associate professor at the University of International Relations said.

"Duterte needs economic growth to reinforce his popular support as soon as possible, otherwise the US' proxies in his country and Aquino's followers will try to oust him when his domestic support rate falls below 60 percent," Chu said.

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