The notion that Philippine trade with China and Russia on the one hand and the United States on the other should be mutually exclusive is only coming from one side – those who oppose President Rodrigo Duterte. There has never been any such suggestion by anyone in the current administration. This stands in stark contrast to the previous government led by Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino who favoured severing all ties with China and who made little attempt to gain new markets in the Russian Federation. During his term, trade with the US in the context of these three was near enough absolute.
The fact is – and not even the anti-Duterte media, nor diehard anti-Chinese elements in the Philippines can distort this – China is the second largest economy in the world; by 2021 it could be in the No.1 slot. For a government, and particularly one living right next door, to ignore that and not exploit it, would amount to a reckless mismanagement of the economy. The Philippines, like every other member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) needs China trade and Chinese investment. Like them also, it needs good relations with China. No government in Asean is oblivious to that.
In this context alone, the jingoism promoted by Aquino over the disputed Scarborough Shoal, an outcrop of ugly rocks in the South China Sea, must be one of the poorest pieces of statecraft ever conceived. And how, precisely did it help the Filipino people? It didn’t. Aside from winning a favourable ruling in a European arbitration court – a ruling that could never be enforced – it didn’t get them one nautical inch closer to resolving this issue. The only gainers, it seems, were the people who sold the T-shirts emblazoned with “China Out!” and the sellers of Chinese flags to be set fire to at the next carnival of hate.
And, of course, Aquino also had his moment in the limelight. He was presented as the leader of a small nation heroically taking on a giant one; it was David and Goliath; his single righteous sling shot would bring a bully to his knees – roll of drums, trumpets, Hollywood ending.
The rhetoric and the emotional outbursts from Aquino were designed to inflame his people; to rouse them to new heights of China-hating and China-baiting. Large demonstrations were encouraged; to humiliate the Mainland and her people. And it worked. It exploited the worst traits of anti-Chinese sentiment in the country – and that is still lingering. If it wasn’t racist in its original intent, its manifestation on social media, in particular, certainly took that form. And as all this went down, the US Government – eager to strengthen its own claims to a legitimate presence right in China’s backyard – silently applauded their perceived marionette in Manila.
Don’t get us wrong, The Volatilian™ has a lot of admiration for the things which Aquino achieved during his term in office – the reforms he sparked, the kick-starting of the economy and its subsequent growth, the crackdown on public corruption among them. But his handling of China – and not just over the South China Sea standoff, but right back to the dawn of that term with his chaotic handling of the hostage crisis in Manila which left eight Hong Kong tourists dead – was by any standards deficient to put it mildly. And his insensitive management in the aftermath of that tragedy remains a bitter memory for many in Hong Kong to this day.
Aquino’s play with respect to Scarborough Shoal was fully supported by the US. In fact, seizing the moment, US President Barack Obama, managed to get Aquino to provide access for his warships and Philippine ground bases for his troops for the next decade. His angle was, they would provide the muscle to cower China. And with that, Aquino dug a deeper hole; one that Duterte is now trying to fill in.
Washington played Aquino like a violin. And while he was still in the presidential palace of Malacañang, it could steer Philippine foreign policy like a remote-controlled toy car. Military planners in the US refer to the Philippines as “their fourth aircraft carrier in the Pacific”. How’s that for presumptuousness?
Duterte knows that this chapter of bitter confrontation with the Philippines’ biggest neighbour – a country with which it has strong and enduring cultural ties – needs to be closed so that the Filipino people can enjoy the benefits of a trade and investment partnership which, handled properly, could considerably boost the economic development of the archipelago.
Significantly, too, the Philippines stands at the start line of the Maritime Silk Road, part of a huge commerce initiative that will connect China to Eurasia – serendipity that should be embraced not scorned, however disadvantageous that may look to Washington; however much it weakens the Liberal Party’s own “initiative” to shun China. And what’s that anyway, economic suicide by spite?
The welfare of the Filipino people must come above partisan politics and certainly above the policy preferences of a former landlord. The hard fact is that China can succeed in Southeast Asia without the Philippines – there are nine other countries in Asean ready to take up the slack. But that is not what China wants and it’s certainly not Duterte’s wish. And meanwhile, too, China remains America’s biggest trading partner.
We wait to see what the president and the 400-strong Filipino trade delegation accompanying him bring back from China; but one thing we do expect is that the recklessness of the recent past has been well and truly resolved. The time for destroying is over; now is the time to build.