In spite of attempts from many Philippine politicians (both in government and the opposition) and the fake yellow media to draw Manila and Beijing into confrontation over issues concerning sovereign rights in the South China Sea, President Duterte has persisted in establishing good relations with China that have been hailed by Chinese President Xi Jinping as ushering in a “golden era” between the two countries.
Central to Duterte’s history making cooperative policies with China are plans for Manila and Beijing to jointly explore and exploit resources in the South China Sea based on a win-win model that will be beneficial to the economies of both nations. Duterte’s success in this area has led to the US pivoting its anti-Chinese strategy in the region away from The Philippines and closer to Vietnam which remains to ASEAN member most hostile to Beijing’s regional claims. At the same time, throughout the first half of 2018, Vietnamese officials have spoken to their Chinese counterparts about a Duterte style solution to the conflict. With the Russian gas company Rosneft now working with long time Moscow partner Vietnam to extract energy resources in a contested area of the South China Sea, it could be that Russia’s involvement in the region could lead to Moscow’s diplomats using a seemingly provocative development to foster greater long term cooperation between China and Vietnam based on a mutually strong Russian partnership.
Overall, what is needed is direct dialogue between ASEAN claimants in the region and China and the best way to do this is to establish a permanent working group that will meet regularly to discuss a non-confrontational approach to the issues in the South China Sea.
As the ASEAN member who under President Duterte has developed the most effective long term model for win-win cooperation over the issue, it would be fitting for The Philippines to propose and initially chair such a working group from the ASEAN side. This would accomplish several things. Domestically, it would help to demonstrate that while Duterte’s opponents and even some of his ill-informed advisers haven’t yet grasped his game changing cooperative initiatives in the South China Sea, that the wider region will not only have grasped but embraced the Duterte model for peace through prosperity in ASEAN. Secondly, this model could help establish The Philippines as a crucial mediator in future Sino-ASEAN disputes, thus proving that far from being incapable of solving its own problems as The Philippines was under most of Duterte’s predecessors, that in this new era, Manila is ready, willing and able to foster Asian authored, owned and executed peace processes for the benefit of the wider region. Finally, such a proposal would help remove at least some of America’s ability to manipulate the internal situation in ASEAN states by arousing suspicion over what should be a holistic and cooperative approach to South China Sea problems on the model of the 1936 Montreux Convention regarding navigation rights in the Turkish Straits.
With prominent Chinese investment banker Fan Cheuk Wan recently affirming that China has long term plans to pump more investment into The Philippines, particularly in the area of infrastructure, it is clear that even in its early days, Duterte’s growing positive relationship with China is paying important dividends for the Philippine economy, even though his opponents are deviously reticent to admit this fact.
By spearheading a regional initiative to once and for all end any conflict between China and ASEAN, it will not only strengthen the free trading zone between China and its south east Asian partners, but it will help to pave the way for future collective security initiatives against the real threat to peace and stability in south east Asia, namely piracy, drug trafficking and terrorism. Again, Duterte has proved his leadership credentials in these areas to be beyond reasonable reproach. Thus, The Philippines could play a constructive role in shifting ASEAN’s relations with China to those dominated by South China Sea issues to the vastly more important matters of securing the long term peace and stability of the region via cooperation with the Chinese military superpower.
When approached from a position of logic and reason, it would be difficult to imagine anyone other than Washington opposed to the establishment of a working group promoting peace through prosperity in the format of consistent dialogue. If Duterte’s domestic opponents were to oppose such a move, it would simply expose them as obstructionists not only to internal development but also to regional development. Duterte has nothing to lose and everything to gain from making such a proposal to both China and his ASEAN partners.