On Thursday, former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hit out at the man who replaced her, the last president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, for encouraging China’s adventures in the South China Sea – more specifically, its comprehensive building programme that’s turned part of the Philippines’ sea territory into Mainland island fortresses.
And she’s right, Aquino’s shelving of diplomacy in favour of political grandstanding did just that. His public humiliation of China left Beijing little option but to throw its islands construction into high gear. But that’s only part of the story. This wasn’t all Aquino’s own work; he had plenty of help and bags of encouragement.
To many, the affected islands may have seemed a simple territorial dispute between the two countries with Aquino attempting to enforce the Philippines’ claim. But like the tops of those tiny islands that are visible on the surface, there was far more going on out of sight below.
And so, enter US president of the day, Barack Obama, who saw a potential in this wrangle that could have far-reaching benefits for his country and his legacy.
Very early in the piece, Obama cultivated a role for Washington in this dispute; publically he offered US services to both parties as an honest broker; privately he convinced Aquino that standing up to China was the right course and that America would support him every step of the way.
But, to use a North of England idiom, Obama was ‘all mouth and trousers’ – he talked about American might, the US standing side-by-side with its Philippine brother, protecting the archipelago against China’s maritime encroachment, containing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea; yet – as it turned out – he delivered absolutely nothing apart from empty words.
What he did do, though, was to sucker a very naïve Aquino into believing all that; that Washington, the Pentagon and the United States Navy had Manila’s back – allowing Obama to use the Philippines as an unwitting pawn on the chessboard of East Asia, a region for which he had his own very definite plans.
This was the region where he wanted to establish the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – at the time, a 12-nation, US-led trade bloc seeking to secure US dominance in world trade by restricting Chinese commerce. China was excluded from joining the TPP. For it to work though, Chinese influence in that region needed to be seriously undermined. Obama, therefore, needed an issue and a willing partner in that part of the world to bring things to a head.
And so naturally he turned to the Philippines – the junior partner in the 70-year old US-Philippines “special relationship” – and to his political soul-mate, Aquino. Manila had always done Washington’s bidding in the past so why not now?
Talk about taking candy from a baby, this turned out to be even easier. Aquino – lauded for economic gains that had boosted his country’s image abroad – was being given the opportunity to emerge as an international statesman; a serious player on the world stage. He was flattered; he was being handed a key role by his ‘friend’ Obama in a high-stakes game of geopolitics. If he pulled it off his footnote in history would be assured. And all he had to do was fire the bullet. The US would take care of the rest.
On 8 April 2012, Aquino started fashioning that bullet when the Philippine Navy apprehended eight small Chinese fishing boats in the waters off Scarborough Shoal, a cluster of rocky outcrops claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan. An inspection of the boats reveled corals, giant clams and live sharks. In terms of marine plunder it was a fairly small deal – but it was enough to start the ball rolling and escalate it to the level of a major international incident. It turned out to be just what Obama needed.
China responded quickly, imposing strict regulations on Philippine banana imports after rejecting and then destroying a 35-ton consignment that had failed quarantine tests; shipments of Philippine bananas from 27 exporters were suspended in a ban that was finally lifted last October. Inspection procedures for other fruit coming from the Philippines were also stepped up. Meanwhile, the China National Tourism Administration and its subordinate agency, China Travel Service, suspended tours to the Philippines. This resulted in some 9% of tourist arrivals – the Mainland component – switching to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.
The war of words between the two governments heated up further while mass street demos gathered in Manila. As the Chinese flag was burned in the Philippine capital, Aquino publically distanced himself from the protests, saying that the government had no hand in them – that they were organise by private groups – while his deputy presidential spokesman, Abigail Valte, stated that the people were expressing their freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.
And then Obama, who’d publically stood on the sidelines and watched the small spark kindle to a flame and watched the flame build into a conflagration, stepped forward offered to mediate – surely knowing that a US presence in this situation would only inflame things further. Predictably, Beijing rejected the offer saying that it would hold direct talks with Manila but non-regional interests – meaning the US – should not be involved.
Aquino, though, shunned all efforts to pursue a bilateral dialogue with China – that would not have been in the US interest. Instead, to Washington’s quiet applause, he upped the ante and in 2013 filed a case with the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration asking it to enforce the Philippines’ claim to Scarborough Shoal. And over the next two years his rhetoric became evermore confrontational; evermore bellicose – after all, Obama has his back. Or so he believed.
Meanwhile, Beijing constructed a barrier at the entrance to the shoal – something that had never happened before; Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels and 130-ton Chinese Coast Guard patrol boats (photo), complete with 14.55mm machine guns, appeared more frequently there. China’s theoretical claim had turned into an occupation which left the Philippine Navy powerless.
And so by 2014, Obama – who’d supported and encouraged Aquino’s handling of the situation – saw a golden opportunity to further the progress of the TPP and implement his East Asian foreign policy – his famous “Pivot to East Asia” which had been in the works, coincidentally, from shortly before the time of the Scarborough Shoal incident.
The actual purpose of the ‘pivot’ – leaving aside much of the US sales blurb of strengthening bilateral relations, deepening working relationships with emerging powers, engaging with multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment – was the containment of China. In its own words, “forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights”. It was by any other name, the US China Containment Policy.
And so, once again Obama turned to Aquino; and once again played him like a fiddle. Given China’s build-up in the South China Sea, it was easy for the US president to convince the Philippine president that he needed more US muscle behind him. And so, when Obama proposed an enhancement of defence cooperation – essentially, expanding the US military presence in the Philippines – Aquino went for it hook, line and sinker.
Thus, on 28 April 2014, both sides signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), giving US forces a 10-year lease of five Philippine military bases. Sold to “promote peace and security in the region,” Obama had got exactly what he wanted from Aquino. And, in turn, Aquino thought he’s got what he needed from the US – what in fact Obama had told him he needed.
But nothing changed. Even after the Philippines was inevitably awarded sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal by the arbitration court last July – the case was another worthless exercise in saber-rattling by Aquino; again encouraged by Obama – Chinese activity around the shoal has continued apace.
The Hague court had no way of enforcing its ruling; that was always understood – that was sort of supposed to be why the US Navy had increased its fleet presence in the area in the first place. At least that’s what everyone was led to believe. But for all its boasting (actually, Obama’s bluffing) of keeping China in line – and of protecting Philippine interests in the South China Sea – the EDCA has had zero effect.
And of course, since then there’s been a changing of the guard in Washington. Obama’s term is finished and the new tenant of the White House, US President Donald Trump, has a very different view of the TPP which necessitated the pivot to East Asia. One of the first things that Trump did after assuming office was to withdraw the US from the trade bloc. Who actually leads it now seems unclear, but without the US it’s virtually in tatters.
Similarly, there’s been an administrative handover in Manila with President Rodrigo Duterte taking over the reins. And his view of China is the polar opposite of Aquino’s. This is the Philippines’ biggest and most powerful neighbour and a huge potential markets for its goods. Unlike Aquino Duterte wasn’t about to cut off his nose to spite his face. And so he embraced China as a partner – and in a handful of months was able to help forge the strongest bilateral relationship these two nations have ever embarked on. And from the Philippine point of view, the most lucrative. Today, China’s buying more Philippine bananas than it ever has.
So, roughly four years of bitter relations with China with detrimental consequences for the Philippine economy. And nothing to show for it other than a moment in the sun for Aquino as he took to the stage in the guise of a national hero – the usual Philippine political melodrama and fantasy of the valiant and virtuous David standing strong against the brutish bullying Goliath – and a momentary pyrrhic victory for Obama before his legacy foreign and trade policy was sunk without trace somewhere in the dark depths of the Philippine Sea.
That’s politics – a game of power and manipulation where what’s on the surface rarely reveals what lies below, which invariably is a twisted root system of self-serving goals, bureaucratic machinations, shallow talk, obfuscation of the facts, deceitful representations, posturing and hidden motives.