Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teddy Locsin has given an extensive interview with China’s Global Times in which he outlined The Philippine perspective on three major issues:
1. South China Sea disputes
2. Belt and Road connectivity with China
3. Philippine-US relations and how they impact Manila’s ties to Beijing
Over the course of an interview based around these three major issues, it became clear that while the present administration has no plans to abandon its military partnership with the United States, in practical terms, China is rapidly becoming a more important partner due to the fact that the China-Philippine partnership is based on pro-growth economic connectivity. In this sense, whilst Locsin retains the view that China is most important economic partner of The Philippines whilst the US continues to be the most important military partner of The Philippines – because for The Philippines, economic growth is a far more urgent matter than building military strength, it becomes self-evident over the course of Locsin’s interview, just which of the two superpower partners is the more important one for The Philippines in the 21st century.
In the 21st century, the greatest security risks facing The Philippines are narcotics, religious extremism and far-left extremism (the NPA). By contrast, it is inconceivable that any fellow ASEAN member would attack The Philippines, as ASEAN has in fact lived up to one of its founding aims – ending the possibility of military conflict between is members.
Even before President Duterte and President Xi mutually affirmed the renunciation of violence as a means of solving South China Sea issues, it has always been clear that China’s policy of non-aggression is a vital element of Beijing’s long term strategy to build peace through prosperity among its Belt and Road partners. Likewise, as The Philippines cannot realistically engage in combat with China due to the limitations of The Philippine military vis-a-vis China, any pre-Duterte threats against China were largely domestic political grandstanding and little more.
With this in mind, it becomes clear that whilst Locsin is generally an fine spokesman for a policy of balance, because China fulfils a more pressing requirement that The Philippines seeks in a large bilateral partner, whilst the US fulfils what realistically is a more abstract role, China is clearly the vital partner for The Philippines moving into the future.
In the following statement made during the interview, Locsin explains that Belt and Road connectivity remains a priority vis-a-vis being bogged down by disputes related to the South China Sea. He sated:
“Some Filipinos are genuinely angry about some of China’s actions in the South China Sea, others just wish to weaken the president. The president must not be misunderstood. He is a very strong president of the Philippines.
As far as the reefs are concerned, that’s a problem we will face. We will try to see what we can do. Definitely, we do not recognize any claims within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. It’s simply ours by law. However, when State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi asked whether there will be a problem moving forward with the Belt and Road Initiative and whether there will be a problem with mutual exploration of oil and gas reserves because we have this disagreement over the reefs, I said no”.
When then asked if The Philippines can develop stronger Belt and Road connectivity with China at the same time as remaining a US military ally, Locsin provided an interesting and in many ways an unexpected answer. His answer included the following observations and polite suggestions:
“Disagreements between China and the US will be avoided if the US makes known its interests in the South China Sea. They have legitimate interests in the South China Sea like freedom of navigation, but at the time when China was making its moves in the South China Sea, the US didn’t say anything, so China thought it was alright. Later, the US changed its policy. If they had moved earlier, it would have been less of an issue.
I believe China is a rising economy and China is the best trading partner for the US. Historically, the US has more affection for China than it ever has for any other country in the world. Families of many American politicians, diplomats – the elitist society – had been missionaries to China. There is some misunderstanding now, but in the end, China and the US will get together on trade because it is in their mutual interest.
In light of that, we, insisting on our rights in the South China Sea, which we will never give up, must nonetheless cooperate more closely with China in areas where we can mutually benefit, such as joining the Belt and Road Initiative that will connect our economy to the rest of the world”.
Locsin’s optimism regarding the possibility of a resolution to America’s trade war with China, whilst using a rather unique interpretation of history to advance a well-meaning theory that China and the US could potentially be natural partners, makes it clear that it is in The Philippine national interest to use what clout it has with both superpowers to help expedite a resolution to the world’s most infamous trade war.
Unlike China which tends to compartmentalise its manifold relations with partners like the United States, Washington tends to look at its bilateral relations with a country like China as a singular matter whose individual parts are somehow inter-related. This helps to explain why US provocations in the South and East China Seas tend to intensify whenever there is an economic/trading dispute between the two countries, whilst it also helps to explain why the US has ordered Canada to detain Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou, in spite of the fact that her detention has been a clear violation of Meng’s human rights.
Donald Trump has even stated that Meng could be fully released in the event of a speedy resolution to the trade war – thus indicating that the US isn’t even particularly shy about its zero-sum approach to China. In this sense, there is a role for The Philippines to play in the matter. As a country with growing economic ties to China and one that in the era of Duterte and Trump maintains a traditional post-independence partnership with the United States, The Philippines could in fact be the perfect location for future China-US trade talks in a neutral environment that could also help The Philippines to showcase its unique relations with both superpowers. In this sense, a more geopolitically proactive Philippines could play the same role in respect of China-US trade relations that South Korea is currently playing in respect of Seoul’s mediating role in DPRK-US relations.
In a further response to another question about the balance of relations between China and the US, Locsin re-affirmed that he does not see any conflict of interest between having positive relations with both China and America. Speaking very frankly, he stated:
” When it comes to our national defence, defence of our sovereignty and sovereign rights, we will depend on American military support. But when it comes to trade, nothing gets in the way of trade with China. The two are separate – sovereign rights and our economic mutual benefit. There is no conflict of interest.
China has built a reputation of helping all Southeast Asian countries.
The road forward for China and the Philippines, and all of Southeast Asia, is wide. The only thing that makes us stumble is little rocks in the middle of the road.
I will go to China soon. When I go, the only thing I will have in mind is that the China I saw since I was young struggling to become a great country and all its efforts to lift most of its people out of poverty, that’s the China I will establish very good relations with. I sincerely hope the reefs issue can be resolved in a manner consistent with the honour of my country, and the honour of China as well, because there’s so much ahead of us”.
Much like his counter-intuitive assessment of historic China-US relations, Locsin concluded his interview with a counter-intuitive statement regarding his hopes and fears in respect of how evolving China-US relations would impact The Philippines. Locsin stated that he actually fears China-US reconciliation more than a fully blown US-China conflict. He justified his response by stating that if America and China become closer partners as he believes is destined to happen, he worries that smaller nations like The Philippines might lose their importance for both.
In reality however, as a strategically located country with great long-term economic potential, there is little doubt that both China and the US will seek to maintain a strong partnership with The Philippines throughout the course of the 21st century. In this sense, the Duterte administration has done an incredibly good job at balancing The Philippine position between the world’s two most powerful and influential countries.