Beijing’s position in the South China Sea has long been widely misunderstood among some ASEAN members. These misunderstandings have led to unnecessary suspicion between some ASEAN members and China while this unfortunate development had also allowed some ASEAN states to be callously manipulated by distant powers. Prior to President Rodrigo Duterte’s election as Philippine President in 2016, officials in Manila were especially guilty of promulgating a misunderstanding among the public in a manner which tended to sow fear and provoke unnecessary distrust. But while Duterte’s direct predecessor is now infamously marked by history as a man who cut military funding while using one of ASEAN’s weakest navies to threaten the Chinese superpower, President Duterte has instead developed historic win-win cooperation mechanisms with China and in so doing, replacing retrograde hostility with modern, forward looking, common sense orientated relations based on mutual respect and a mutual understanding of the concerns of all parties.
Known as the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea or BCM, Duterte’s model of working jointly with China to exploit resources in the Sea has recently won favour at a pan-ASEAN level after this summer’s meeting of ASEAN foreign ministers in Singapore adopted a Code of Conduct (COC) for dialogue based diplomatic and win-win economic solutions to remaining disputes in the South China Sea.
In this sense, while members of Duterte’s increasingly hysterical domestic opposition have failed to grasp the historic importance of the Philippine President’s pioneering achievement for peace through prosperity, the rest of ASEAN, including Vietnam have indeed recognised this profound and game changing achievement.
The Duterte model demonstrates that the quickest and most mutually just path to the harmonisation of cooperation among nations in the South China Sea region is through direct dialogue which is underscored by the reality that China and ASEAN are growing economic partners who can gain much from mutual cooperation and who stand to lose a great deal by succumbing to non-Asian meddling in a regional dispute.
What’s more is that no rational alternative exists to the Duterte model which has led to mutual trust, shared problem solving initiatives and shared concerns being voiced as part of the ongoing BCM discussions. That being said, a clear irrational, reckless and irresponsible alternative does exist. Had Duterte continued the militant policies of his Liberal predecessor, the logical endgame of such a course of action would be some form of Sino-US military confrontation in south east Asia that would only lead to much of The Philippines being destroyed. By contrast, Duterte’s method insures not only peace but that the Chinese economic and military superpower can now work with The Philippines on initiatives that will enrich both nation’s materially and that furthermore, the trust built through such cooperation can now insure transparent Chinese cooperation in key areas such as stopping the narcotics trade in the region as well as the sharing of intelligence and the transferring of weapons to help The Philippines fight terrorist groups.
As Duterte himself said of the BCM,
“Now their (Beijing’s) offer is joint exploration, which is like co-ownership. It’s like the two of us would be the owners. I think that’s better than fighting”.
Guided by these words, Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Enrique Manalo travelled to Beijing to meet with Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou to discuss further developments regarding the BCM. After the meeting, the following joint statement was co-signed by Kong and Manalo:
“China and the Philippines convened the Third Meeting of the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM) on 18 October 2018 in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China. The Philippine delegation was led by DFA Undersecretary for Policy Enrique A. Manalo and the Chinese delegation was led by Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou. The Third Meeting of the BCM comprised equivalent officials from the respective foreign ministries and relevant agencies.
Both sides acknowledged the importance of the BCM as a venue for enhanced and regular dialogue that can play a significant role in the stable development of bilateral relations, through which both sides could address differences, prevent and properly manage incidents at sea and enhance maritime dialogue and cooperation.
In a candid and friendly manner, both sides exchanged views on current and other issues of concern and considered approaches to address these issues in a mutually beneficial way, with both sides reaffirming their commitment to cooperate and to continue to find ways forward to strengthen mutual trust and confidence. Both sides considered the meeting fruitful and productive.
Bearing in mind the Joint Statement of November 16, 2017, both sides reiterated that the contentious maritime issues are not the sum total of the China-Philippines relations, and agreed that the increasingly dynamic Philippines-China relations should serve the interests of the Filipino and Chinese peoples and contribute to peace, stability, and development in the region.
Believing that the proper management of disputes in the South China Sea is vital in safeguarding regional peace and stability, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of freedom of navigation in and overflight above the South China Sea, freedom of international commerce and other peaceful uses of the sea, addressing territorial and jurisdictional disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, through friendly consultations and negotiations by sovereign states directly concerned and the exercise of self-restraint, in accordance with universally recognized principles of international law, including the Charter of the United Nations and the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
The two sides also recognized the importance of other complementary multilateral platforms, including ASEAN-China Dialogue Relations, ASEAN Regional Forum, and East Asia Summit, in promoting peace and stability in the region. Both sides reiterated the commitment to the full and effective implementation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in its entirety and to work closely with other ASEAN Member States towards early consensus on the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea (COC).
Both sides had a productive exchange of views on ways to enhance maritime cooperation in areas such as on recent developments in the South China Sea carrying political and security implications, maritime search and rescue, maritime safety, marine environmental protection, marine scientific research, and fisheries in relevant Working Group meetings under the framework of the BCM. Without prejudice to their respective positions on sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction, both sides also discussed possible cooperation on joint exploration and development of maritime oil and gas.
The Fourth Meeting of the BCM will be held in the Philippines in the first half of 2019, with the exact date and place to be determined and mutually agreed upon through diplomatic channels”.
The statement makes it clear that the “joint-ownership” model invoked by Duterte is proceeding along positive lines that will inevitably lead to substantial developments in the region, the proceeds of which will be enjoyed by both the Filipino and Chinese people. While China’s door has long been open to its ASEAN partners in respect of dialogue over South China Sea issues, Duterte was the first ASEAN leader to unambiguously take advantage of this mentality and help to usher in what Chinese President Xi called a “golden era” of bilateral relations. This golden era can now be shared by the ASEAN partners of The Philippines who guided by the Duterte spirit of peace through prosperity can now take advantage of similar models of interaction with China in order to pave a brighter future for all of the unique cultures of the Asia-Pacific region.