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So far, the China visit of President Aquino has produced agreements on the economic and business side but minimal on the political and boundary issues. There is a definite toning down of expectations regarding the latter although much hype has been done on the former.

Of course, this is as it should be, given the complexity of the territorial claims issue, intertwined as it is with strategic geopolitical ones and the prospects of huge gas and oil deposits in the areas being claimed. To the extent that they can play down the tensions associated with widely-varying positions on the claims, the two sides evidently relegated the issue to future negotiations, including the latter’s terms of reference.

What the two sides are doing is still in the confidence-building stage. Aside from the obvious business and economic benefits derived from the agreements so far, the visit conveyed to each party the other side’s willingness to talk over the territorial claim issue.

The Philippines, in addition, also offers its own incentive to include the possibility of a joint oil exploration in the contested areas outside of its own exclusive economic zone. China seems hesitant so far but the offer is tempting since it does not bind future arrangements.

China also tempts the Philippines with prospects of more economic ties, including a US$60 billion investment, a US$7.7 billion development investment loan, and a ten-fold increase in tourist arrivals. On its own, this economic package, if realized, offers a huge safety net in the face of the worsening global recession. If used wisely, this can stabilize and expand the domestic industries and lay the foundations for sustained economic growth, at least in the medium term.

The visit will not, of course, stop the current military, diplomatic, and political strategies being pursued by each party in relation to the claims in the South China Sea (also called West Philippine Sea). However, it should lead to a more manageable future negotiation and less tension in the area.

China has made a major move in the Chinese checkers game with the economic and business gambit. And it seems, the Philippines wants to be part of the play, rather than be a mere chip on the board. It wants to reconfigure its ties with China—as a friend and partner rather than as a perceived minor power with overweening ambitions.

How will the United States, a close Philippine ally with considerable interests of its own in the area, craft its reposté? Definitely, it will not let its own bargaining power weaken in the face of the success of President Aquino’s China visit. An official visit to the US perhaps?

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[My next Catalyst article].

The upcoming Beijing trip of President Aquino reminds me of the game of Chinese checkers. This game has the objective akin to Pacman where winner takes all by eating all opponents. Chinese checkers has the additional tactical moves such as by blocking an “eat” by positioning two chips in the path of the opponent’s chip or putting one chip with its back against the board border, by putting out or sacrificing one chip in a trap to eat two or more chips of the opponent, or by strategic positioning to set up a trap the opponent cannot but walk into.

The asymmetrical balance of political and resource factors between world power China and the Philippine puny state define the parameters of the Aquino state visit. There is, of course, the unseen-but-cannot-be-ignored superpower United States that has its own interests in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the world that frequently clash with Chinese interests. It is this reality that pushed the Philippines, perhaps unwillingly, from local or regional diplomatic arena into the unfamiliar great-power plays that all-too-frequently crushes the small player.

The crux of the matter here is control or access to the potentially bountiful riches of oil and mineral resources in or around the Philippine territory, the control or access to strategic sea lanes which Philippines straddle, and the strengthening or breaking of the “containment ring” allied Western powers have put around China. Unfortunately, the Philippines is a key chip in this checkers game.

It is undoubtedly in the national interests of all parties involved to maintain their viability in the game. Most of the time, preserving the status quo suffices. However, there may come a time when there is a need to redefine the relationships of these parties and establish a new reality. Such, I think, is the present moment.

China, in this case, caused the changing of the balance of power not only in the region but globally. It is now entering the stage as a world power, second only to the United States. It is now flexing its muscle to have this recognized against a backdrop of severe economic stresses of the capitalist system centered in the Western developed economies. Ironically, China is looked upon by most of these countries as a possible savior to prevent a serious global recession because of its massive domestic market, strong currency and reserve position, and high technology base.

The downside to China’s growth is its insatiable appetite for raw materials and energy sources, huge foreign reserves and external holdings, and its export-oriented economy, making it a major competitor to the Western countries in terms of their own game. The Philippines is a classic case of a chip caught in the middle of powerful contending plays of dominant players.

How to survive or even profit from this situation is a political, economic and diplomatic challenge to President Aquino and his administration. The forthcoming visit therefore by a new president presents an opportunity to set up new plays and redefine China-Philippine relations according to principles of mutual benefit, friendship, and respect for each other’s sovereignty. This even as the Philippines needs to assure Western friends of its own respect for their interests.

Chinese checkers is a game of foresight and maneuver. Yet, at the end, one must lose and the other will win. Creating a situation where no one loses but everybody wins requires thinking beyond the game. Will PNoy and his foreign policy advisers deliver the goods?

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The postponement of President Aquino’s trip to China is just one of the signs foretelling trouble in the China-Philippines relations. If not handled well by both sides, these relations may deteriorate and eventually turn sour.

There are several facets of these relations that collectively describe the entire state of China-Philippine relations. One, there is the historically friendly relations on a people-to-people level.  Two, there is generally productive economic relations. Three, except during the Cold war until the Nixon administration’s “ping-pong diplomacy,” there is the generally friendly and respectful political relations between the respective governments. Four, though there are border incidents due to conflicting territorial claims, there is the openness to accommodate each other’s claim.

In the post-Cold War period, these relations not only flourished but generally grow stronger. Through all the administrations, liberal and conservative, these have not been affected by either the politics or policy decisions of these administrations.

Of course, there are historical irritants–ranging from tendencies of Filipino racism and counterpart local Chinese chauvinism, local Philippine “Maoist” communist movement to conflicting claims over the Spratly Islands archipelago and trade issues. However, these are managed issues secondary to the mainly excellent relations up to the present.

In a few short months, the Aquino administration has significantly weakened these relations. There is a discernible shift from the GMA’s “China card” approach to a more US-aligned position. It is also evident that China, for its part, is not contributing much–and is in fact–applying a calibrated response to the Aquino government’s own China-related policies.

Of course, there were immediate causes for this slight shift. We can cite the Chinese (and Hongkong’s) over-response to the Luneta hostage incidence, the perceived unsympathetic Chinese response to appeals at the highest level for the lives of the three Filipino drug couriers, and the provocations in the Spratlys. Even the recent visit of the Chinese defense minister after a few buzzing incidents in the Spratlys sends a subtle threat signal. The Chinese actions can well be interpreted as an ill-disguised and heavy-handed Chinese pressure diplomatic offensives to test the political will of the new Aquino government.

The US government–for its own national interests–saw the opening and took advantage of it. It strengthened the Obama government  relations to the Aquino government with a new US ambassador, provided a certain naval patrol capability to the Philippine navy, and strengthened the Democratic Party’s ties to the ruling Liberal Party. It thus started a new round of political, diplomatic,  and armed power play not only in the Philippines but in the Southeast Asia as well.

The situation can easily spiral into an arms race or even confrontation. This will not be in the  best interests of the Philippines, the SEA region, or the great powers themselves. Stability and predictable behavior are the current norms of conduct that must be preserved.

The ball is on the Aquino government’s court on this one. How it handles the pressures arising from great power plays in this part of the world will have a bearing not only on its own political future but on the future of the region as well.

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