In two days time, President Xi Jinping will travel to the first ever APEC conference held in Papua New Guinea. After that he will travel to Brunei before making an historic visit to The Philippines. Crucially, Chinese media has emphasised the unique significance of Xi’s visit to The Philippines over and above his other travels that he will make throughout the rest of November.
While Jiang Zemin was the first paramount Chinese leader to visit The Philippines in the modern era, having been given an official state visit by President Fidel Ramos in 1996, the forthcoming visit of Xi to The Philippines will undoubtedly be the most important such meeting between a Chinese and Philippine head of state to-date.
While the stakes are very high, the cordial personal atmosphere developed between Xi Jinping and Rodrigo Duterte has led to an historic breakthrough in long strained China-Philippines relations. Upon Philippine President Duterte’s first visit to China as a head of state, Xi hailed the moment as the beginning of a “golden period” in bilateral 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.
This year the armed forces and military observers of every ASEAN nation gathered in Zhanjiang for the first ever joint military exercises between China and ASEAN. This occasion helped to transform 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, into one where win-win discussions regarding the long term status of China and its ASEAN partners in the region will be settled though peaceful multilateralism.
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.
In this sense Duterte has made history not only for his own nation but for ASEAN as a whole as the Duterte model (the BCM) is now a template for all forms of conflict resolution in the wider region. Beyond this, Duterte has recently affirmed that in any would-be war in south east Asia that could see Chinese and US forces engaged in combat, The Philippines would remain neutral and physically closed off to the conflict.
Xi’s forthcoming visit therefore looks not only to transform a period of suspicion into one of win-win cooperation but specifically, China and The Philippines seek a cooperative relationship in respect of exploiting the energy resources in the South China Sea. As China has the economic resources to begin a process of off-shore drilling while realistically The Philippines has far more limited resources in this respect, both countries can benefit from an agreement to work cooperatively to share the profits from untapped energy sources. As The Philippines has been hit hard this year by the rising price of Brent Crude, having the ability to become more energy independent while also working with China to extract oil which is highly valuable on the world market – the joint Sino-Philippine ventures in regional waters will if anything have more short term benefits for the Philippine economy than the Chinese economy. In the long term, the benefits will naturally enhance the material advantage of both partner nations.
For China, the steps President Duterte has taken to usher in a new golden era in bilateral relations have been met with high hopes for a future relationship that will see The Philippines experience the economic benefits of being integrated into the Belt and Road initiative. As Duterte recently offered his written support for Belt and Road in a salutary gesture to Chinese officials, the prospect of further Chinese investment in The Philippines will not only elevate domestic living standards for Filipinos but will help the country reap the long term benefits of its strategic location in terms of world trade by deepening Philippine connectivity to modern global trading routes.
China’s highly influential Global Times newspaper recently discussed the importance of Xi’s forthcoming visit to The Philippines with scholar Xu Liping. As originally printed in The Global Times,
“Xi’s visit to the Philippines is of great significance as the two countries have come to a historic juncture that is likely to lead to enhanced bilateral ties and increased pragmatic cooperation, Xu told the Global Times.
It is very likely that the two countries will reach an agreement on joint oil exploration in the South China Sea, Xu said, noting that the Philippines currently relies heavily on imported oil and a deal with China to develop offshore oil resources would give the Philippine economy a great boost.
Manila will first have to clear all legal barriers to joint oil exploration and ease public opposition, which may hinder future oil projects, Xu noted.
Filipino presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo revealed that President Rodrigo Duterte, when interviewed by a group of Chinese reporters on Wednesday, said he was hoping Xi would visit his residence in Davao City, the local news site philstar.com reported on Friday.
This kind of diplomacy, which aims to strengthen personal relationships, could lead the two leaders to conclude other deals on improving infrastructure in the less developed southern region of the Philippines, Xu told the Global Times on Monday”.
This demonstrates that China is placing a substantial emphasis on its growing relationship with The Philippines. Because of this, the time is ripe for both countries to take advantage of this historic moment for the benefit of two peoples seeking a common destiny of sustainable moderate prosperity.
While China’s door has long been open in respect of seeking deeper and more meaningful cooperation with multiple ASEAN partners, in opening a door that his predecessors had once shut, President Duterte has made a better future possible for Filipinos by replacing suspicion with cooperation and economic detachment with prosperity driving connectivity.
If Duterte and Xi do in fact visit the Philippine President’s home city of Davao, it will encapsulate a warm relationship with firm roots planted in the soil of trust, friendship and pragmatic win-win relations.