The importance of a single moment in history is not always immediately clear directly after it has occurred. Sometimes it takes months or even years for the significance of any particular event to be realised. But in the case of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s visit to China in October of 2016, in which The Philippine head of state sought to inaugurate a new win-win relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the historic outgrowth of that meeting has taken literally two years, almost to the day, to fully reveal its deep long term significance.
Back in October 2016, President Xi heralded a “golden era” in Sino-Philippine relations. The following year, the Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea or BCM was initiated as part of a long term joint cooperation initiative between Manila and Beijing to mutually exploit the resources of nearby South China Sea waters. Then in the summer of 2018 at the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Conference in Singapore, ASEAN and China signed the Code of Conduct (COC) for dialogue based diplomatic and win-win economic solutions to remaining disputes in the South China Sea.
Today, the armed forces and military observers of every ASEAN nation are in Zhanjiang for the first ever joint military exercises between China and ASEAN. This occasion looks to end an era of suspicion regarding South China Sea territorial rights that had been stoked in recent years by the United States and some of its ASEAN partners. By contrast, China’s door has always been open to dialogue based problem solving initiatives as it has never been Beijing’s intention to limit the maritime rights of its neighbours and partners in the South China sea. Rather, it has been China’s long term goal to make sure that regional cooperation triumphs over an outdated spirit of a “great power rivalry” in the Pacific.
While some ASEAN states in the past were reticent to embrace a dialogue based approach to finding win-win solutions to South China Sea concerns, as The Philippines had previously been the most vocal ASEAN member in terms of sending out harsh messages to China, the ground-breaking re-set in relations inaugurated by President Duterte shortly after his election in 2016 literally sent positive shortwaves across the Sea, so much so that even Vietnam which at times sees itself as an historical regional rival to China has decided to enact dialogue based solutions and has now sent its own vessel to participate in the current joint drills.
The joint drills further vindicate another stance of Duterte when he proclaimed that not only is a policy of hostility towards China counter-productive in a geopolitical sense but that it would be an act of madness from the point of military logistics as China’s armed forces dwarf those of The Philippines and most other ASEAN nations in terms of size and power. Crucially, Duterte understood that China’s might is not intended to project a threat to its neighbours but instead this reality should be seen as an opportunity for ASEAN nations with large and in many cases vulnerable maritime frontiers to cooperate with the Chinese superpower over common threats including narcotics trafficking, terrorism and piracy.
While Duterte’s direct predecessor had an outward policy of hostility towards China based on cloak and dagger diplomacy, Duterte’s transparent relations with all of the closest maritime neighbours of The Philippines has thrust the country into the modern age. Duterte’s recent expressions of support for the Belt and Road initiative further indicate that beyond the realm of peace, Duterte looks to use the new peaceful environment in the region to enrich the material prosperity of his own people.
Now, the rapprochement with China that Duterte’s domestic critics have been mocking since 2016 has become a model of a wider cooperation endeavour between China and all of ASEAN. As Singapore is an ASEAN state often seen as a potential peace broker in South China Sea affairs, it is notable that Rear-Admiral Lew Chuen Hong, the chief of Singapore’s navy has vocally endorsed the joint drills. Likewise, Malaysia and Thailand have further expressed their support for future military cooperation over regional security issues. Also, on the eve of the joint drills, Malaysia’s Prime Minister in waiting Anwar Ibrahim encouraged all Malaysians to learn Mandarin Chinese as a gateway to further economic opportunity, thus demonstrating a collective spirit of cooperation and good will throughout the economically dynamic Asia-Pacific region.
The overall atmosphere in south east Asia is therefore changing. The Cold War mentality that the US continues to revive with frequent naval provocations in the South China Sea has been firmly rejected by ASEAN as a whole as instead a new era of cooperation has dawned. Therefore, it would behove the US to realise that economic partnerships should always triumph over Cold War style scaremongering and that further more, it is for Asian nations to author their own mutual destinies with one another.
While today’s’ events are a mutually positive development for all nations involved, it cannot be forgotten that what just several years ago would have been unthinkable is today the manifest reality in Asia. It began when The Philippines provided its partners a new template for relations with China and now they have answered in the affirmative. China and ASEAN have chosen peace through prosperity over tension and suspicion that benefits no one.