Improving China-Philippine ties in Filipinos’ interest
Published: Aug 19, 2019 08:48 PM
Speculations are swirling among some Philippine media outlets that the China-Philippine honeymoon may come to an end when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte visits China later this month. Reports that he would reportedly raise "irritants" with Chinese President Xi Jinping, including the 2016 South China Sea arbitration ruling, were interpreted as a sign that Manila is ready to take a harder line on its relations with Beijing. 

China-Philippine relations have improved since Duterte took office in 2016 and decided to set aside the South China Sea dispute to develop all-around pragmatic cooperation in various fields with China. We have to admit that there are indeed "irritants" in China-Philippine relations. It's normal for the heads of state to discuss them during face-to-face talks. Facing up to contentious points doesn't necessarily lead to deteriorating bilateral relations. It is more likely to enhance mutual understanding, avoid misjudgment and foster joint commitments to resolve differences.  

According to the Philippine Star, Finance Undersecretary Mark Dennis Joven said China and the Philippines are scheduled to finalize five agreements, which cover trade, border control and infrastructure, during Duterte's trip. The upcoming China visit, the fifth during the president's three years in office, is another opportunity to further cement improved bilateral relations. 

Much could be done for the two sides to expand cooperation in various fields, such as marine environmental protection and joint oil and gas exploitation, and fishing cooperation is an area that is easy to make a breakthrough. Although Duterte and Xi reached a verbal agreement during a meeting in 2016 that allowed the two countries access to fishing areas in each other's controlled waters, there has not been a written deal yet. 

In the Philippines, a few China hawks still believe that Manila should capture or expel any Chinese fishing boat in the 200 nautical mile (370 kilometers) exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea. However, based on the verbal agreement between the two leaders, fishing cooperation has been underway. 

The Philippine economy relies heavily on fishing and the seafood trade, and in terms of fishing capability, the Philippines lags behind China. It's easy to understand why some Filipinos are very sensitive over any fishing moves by China in the South China Sea. China is willing to deepen fishing cooperation with the Philippines, taking the demands of Filipino fishermen into consideration on the condition that it won't cede any inch of Chinese territory. 

Joint development and management of the region's natural resources can be an optimal approach to manage territorial disputes and boost cooperation. A formal agreement on fishing rights in the South China Sea, if reached, would greatly help prevent fishing disputes, stabilize the region and further improve bilateral relations.

Duterte, widely believed to be a pragmatist, has clearly recognized this. In his 2019 State of the Nation Address on July 22, he justified the supposed agreement between him and Xi to allow fishing rights for both their peoples, arguing it's a way to avert war over the South China Sea. 

Why has Duterte adopted a friendly and pragmatic approach in dealing with China despite domestic criticism? He is not a "pro-China" president as some critics labeled him, but a president of the Philippines who prioritizes the country's national interests. Maintaining relations with China on a healthy track is in the best interest of the Philippines. There is no reason for him to change or give up his current China approach. 

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