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.