The Philippines re-establishes relations with America
THE DISCOVERED in March, around 200 Chinese ships around a reef in the “exclusive economic zone” which stretches 200 nautical miles off the coast of the Philippines sparked almost daily protests from its foreign and defense ministries . Whitsun Reef, which the government calls the Julian Felipe Reef, is one of the many reefs that make up the Spratly Islands in the middle of the South China Sea. It is three times closer to the Philippines than it is to China, which wildly and unsupported claims almost all of the sea.
The Pentecostal swarm, led by ‘gray zone’ militia ships masquerading as fishing trawlers, is the latest move in China’s growing occupation of disputed spots in the South China Sea . This time around, most members of the Philippine government seem determined not to just turn around. As Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said: “Although we recognize that China’s military capability is more advanced than ours, this does not prevent us from defending our national interest and our dignity as a people. , with everything we have. Foreign Minister Teodoro ‘Teddy Boy’ Locsin, who has a notorious trigger thumb on Twitter, went further. ‘China, my friend,’ he wrote, ‘how politely can I say it? Let me see… O… GET OUT THE FUCK. “
It is striking that the member of the government most reluctant to criticize China is President Rodrigo Duterte. After Mr. Locsin’s explosion, Mr. Duterte, who spoke rudely, declared that in his cabinet he was the only one who had the right to curse. He also found ways to congratulate China, especially for providing much-needed vaccines against covid-19.
On paper, says Julius Trajano, a political analyst, the president is the chief architect of foreign policy in the Philippines. After taking office in 2016, Mr. Duterte leaned heavily towards the great power of the north. He refused to press for a ruling in favor of the Philippines from an international tribunal, which refuted China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea. On his first trip to Beijing as president to meet his counterpart, Xi Jinping, he said it was “time to say goodbye” to the United States. For good measure, he announced a military “separation” of the Philippine ally and the former colonial power.
At the time, Mr. Duterte was quick to brag about the fruits of his pro-China orientation: promises of big investments in the Philippines’ decrepit infrastructure as part of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI); the return of Filipino fishermen to the waters around Scarborough Shoal, in which China had gained strength in 2012; and the prospect of Chinese aid in oil exploration in Philippine waters. Yet, says Jay Batongbacal of the University of the Philippines, all of this is almost nothing. BRI the projects are either small (a few bridges in Manila, the capital) or controversial (dams in nature reserves). Fishermen say they are afraid to return to Scarborough Shoal, given the past percussion of Chinese ships. Maritime tensions preventing oil and gas exploration, Batongbacal said, have influenced energy policy, leading to an overemphasis on coal. An influx of Chinese nationals into Manila’s offshore gambling industry has brought a host of social problems in its wake.
Mr Duterte’s insistence on keeping relations good is driven by hopes for Chinese vaccine deliveries, on which his legacy now rests (he resigns next year). To date, supplies have been paltry. And despite the ravages of the pandemic – more than 20,000 dead – Filipinos are skeptical of the Chinese blows.
The president must realize that his inclination towards China has been a failure. The reverse of the coin is a renewed inclination towards America. A year ago, Mr. Duterte announced the cancellation of the bilateral agreement on visiting forces (VFA), which allows US troops to be deployed in the Philippines. However, on two occasions since, he has granted an extension allowing the VFA to continue, while MM. Lorenzana and Locsin plead for its permanent maintenance. Meanwhile, Mr. Duterte has finally started defending the arbitration award against claims from China, including at Scarborough Shoal.
The Philippines reestablishes its relations with America. In fact, it has never been severed – foreign and security ties run deep. Still, President Joe Biden’s administration has shown its support. He has stepped up joint military exercises and made it clear that his mutual defense treaty covers aid to the Philippines, even in the event of an attack by unofficial Chinese militias. China may have won Whitsun Reef. But he lost the Philippines.
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Failed”