The China-Philippines-U.S. Triangle

Noynoy AquinoThe United States is, by far, the Philippines’ most important strategic security partner. China’s ascent as a regional Asia Pacific powerhouse, coupled with the relative decline of the United States, has threatened to reconfigure this equation. Yet China’s growing assertiveness over territorial claims from Northeast Asia to the South China Sea might also unravel the two decades of its relatively successful charm offensive, which calmed the nerves of many anxious Southeast Asian nations. Any display of aggression by China in the South China Sea could compromise its relations with the Philippines.

Over the last two decades, these territorial disputes in the South China Sea have prompted the Philippines to develop a coherent national security doctrine to address external threats. Using a combination of bilateralism and multilateralism, the Philippines have tried to resolve its territorial disputes peacefully as well as prevent the possibility of suicidal warfare with China.

Into this complicated triangular relationship has stepped Benigno (Noynoy) Aquino. The son of two leading Filipino political figures, Noynoy has promised transformative change that might prove critical in shifting the country’s complex relationship with these two global powers.

U.S. Out, China In

From the early 20th century until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military served as the backbone of Philippine national security. But with the expiration of the base agreements and the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the Philippine government had by 1992 terminated the U.S. military presence in the country. The absence of defense cooperation left a regional power vacuum, which China sought to fill.

Then in 1995, the Philippines faced the potential of war with China after the Mischief Reef incident in which the Chinese Navy detained Filipino fishermen on territory claimed by China, the Philippines, and Vietnam. The Philippines subsequently discovered that China was building a military compound on this atoll. In turn, this led to increased tensions between China and ASEAN Regional Forum (in which the United States, the Philippines, and Vietnam are all members).

Unsurprisingly, in response to China’s increasing military assertiveness, a vulnerable Philippines invited the Americans back. The 1998 Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), the bilateral agreement signed between the United States and the Philippine government, allowed for a substantial U.S. military presence in the country. For the United States, the VFA was part of a broader security framework that allowed the United States to retain its geostrategic supremacy in the Asia Pacific region.

Reestablishing the U.S. Base

The tragic events of 9/11 provided the pretext for the United States to expand its regional presence under the banner of “war on terror.” In December 2001, the Philippines became part of Operation Enduring Freedom – Philippines, thus becoming an ally in this global war., Members of Special Operations Command Pacific (SOCPAC) were deployed to support these operations in early 2002. At that time, The New York Times described this mission as the “the largest single deployment of American military might outside Afghanistan to fight terrorists since the Sept. 11 attack.” The U.S. military moved toward re-establishing permanent troop presence in Mindanao, offering logistical and intelligence support for the Philippine military against such groups as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, Abu Sayyaf, and the al-Qaeda regional offshoot, Jemaah Islamiya.

In 2003, the Department of Defense announced that the Philippines and the United States would engage in a combined operation against Abu Sayyaf – which meant that the U.S. forces were now directly participating in combat operations on Filipino soil. The operation involved sending 350 U.S. special operations personnel to work with Philippine soldiers, who were logistically backed up by 750 Americans in regional headquarters on Mindanao.

While the Philippines had initially invited the U.S. military back as a form of deterrence against Chinese incursion into disputed territories, allegations surfaced it had become became a training ground for both U.S. military counter-insurgency operations and mercenary private contactors. Blackwater’s spokeswoman Anne Tyrrell announced in 2007 that “[w]e are no longer pursuing a facility in the Philippines,” referring to the vacated Subic Bay base.

However, in 2009, American investigative journalist Wayne Madsen alleged that Blackwater subsidiary Satelles Solution was using a “five-acre facility in the former United States naval base [Subic] to train operatives for secret US-backed military operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and other hot spots.” Despite the Subic Authority’s outright rejection of Madsen’s report, the Philippine National Police, under growing pressure from the media and people, launched an investigation to determine its veracity. However, the 2010 elections overshadowed the Blackwater issue, and it has faded from the limelight.

In recent months, under growing domestic criticism from both the right and left that the treaty is a one-sided security agreement – favoring the United States — the Aquino administration has begun reviewing the VFA. Said Senator Loren Legarda, a prominent Filipino politician: “We are mandated to review the VFA and to consider this in the light of the numerous calls for action on reported inequities and legal questions characterizing the agreement.” The Philippine military has expressed support for the VFA and review process, in order to advance the security interests of both nations while improving the Philippines’ own capacity to thwart terrorist threats.

The ASEAN dynamic

The relationship between the Philippines and China must be viewed within the broader ASEAN context. The post-Cold War period marked a sustained phase – with some momentary interruptions – of growing cooperation and dialogue between China, on one hand, and ASEAN members on the other.

“The Philippines primarily employed the ‘ASEAN strategy’ to manage its territorial disputes with China,” observers Herman Kraft, director of Institute for Strategic and Developmental Studies (ISDS), a leading regional think-tank based in Manila. Instead of using power politics and involving the United States directly in the dispute, the Philippines sought to use collective bargaining – in cooperation with other ASEAN member countries – to temper and tame China’s efforts at consolidating its territorial claims.

Although the Philippines used multilateral mechanisms to manage its territorial disputes with China, it also engaged in bilateral efforts at improving the overall state of relations between these countries. During the Joseph Estrada presidency (1998-2001) and the first few years of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, agreements were few.

This changed in 2004. The crucial juncture in Philippine-China relations came at the height of the war on terror. In that year, an extremist group in Iraq took a Filipino worker hostage. In exchange for his release, the Iraqi militants demanded that Filipino troops leave Iraq. The subsequent withdrawal of the Filipino forces, under growing pressure from the Filipino public, adversely affected U.S.-Philippines relations. The Bush administration’s uncompromising motto of “you are either with us or against us” meant that the Philippine actions led to a decrease in U.S. military and economic assistance. In response, Filipino policy-makers began knocking on China’s door.

President Arroyo’s state visit to Beijing signaled a new relationship between the two countries. In November, defense ministers from both sides signed a Memorandum of Understanding on Defense Cooperation. To sweeten the deal, China proposed greater military exchanges and offered RMB10 million in non-lethal military assistance, which was followed by RMB20 million in military equipment. On the economic front, China-Philippines trade increased from $17.6 billion in 2005 to $23.4 in 2006 and $30.6 billion in 2007. China was on its way to becoming one of the Philippines’ largest trading partners.

Since then, China has dramatically improved political ties with the Philippines, expanding its role in key economic sectors such as telecommunications and transport. As part of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) and as a strong supporter of many ASEAN-China cooperation schemes, the Philippines became an important regional player in accommodating China’s growing influence in the region. From China’s vantage point, its growing ties with the Philippines are part of its broader regional strategy of expanding its economic dominance and diminishing the prospects of a sustained and strong U.S.-led regional coalition bent on containing its rise.

The Role of Aquino

As Henry Kissinger noted in 2007, the “rise of China is inevitable,” and “the fundamental challenge that we [America] face in that relationship” is how the Chinese use their military, political, and economic strength. In global strategic terms, China’s ascendancy is the central transformative feature of the post 2008 global financial crisis, which has decreased Western dominance. This is the global context within which Philippine foreign policy operates. Thus, President Noynoy Aquino’s power is circumscribed by the broader dynamics of the U.S.-China relationship.

In 2010, the Aquino administration’s foreign policy mirrors that of other lesser regional powers caught between the United States and China. According to Kraft, Aquino’s strong anti-corruption agenda is having an impact on bilateral relations with China. Chinese overseas companies – mostly tied to the government – are notorious. According to Bribe Payers Index, which measures a country’s willingness to engage in bribery to win contracts, China ranks among the most corrupt countries in the world – only slightly less corrupt than Russia. Corruption scandals have embroiled Chinese companies and their Filipino counter-parts. The most prominent case, currently used by the Aquino administration as grounds for imprisoning former president Arroyo, is the NBN-ZTE scandal, in which a Chinese telecommunications company received the contract to build a Filipino broadcasting network. Kidnappings and charges of extortion, in part, led to the cancellation of the deal.

Since taking office, Aquino has faced two major incidents that have affected his country’s relations with China. The first was the Manila hostage crisis in August, in which eight Hong Kong nationals died and nine others were injured. The tragedy quickly evolved into a diplomatic crisis. Hong Kong accused the Philippine government of gross mismanagement of the hostage negotiations, and China issued a travel warning. The Philippine government’s diplomatic efforts in the aftermath of the crisis bordered on “tiptoeing” around China.

More tiptoeing has followed. On the advice of his foreign affairs advisors, Aquino caved in to Chinese pressure and turned down an invitation to attend the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony honoring Chinese dissident Li Xiaobo. In so doing, the Philippines joined a group of autocratic economic-political allies of China that also boycotted the ceremony out of solidarity with Beijing. In response, the Chinese government expressed its deep appreciation for Manila’s display of support. Chinese Ambassador to Manila Liu Jianchao said, “I appreciate the understanding shown by the Philippine government of the Chinese people and the Chinese government.”

Recently published documents from the Wikileaks also indicate growing U.S. anxiety over China’s deepening influence in Southeast Asia. In one cable, U.S. ambassador to Beijing, Clark T. Randt, wrote, “Perceived threats to China’s security posed by Japan’s participation in missile defense or by future high-tech US military technologies might cause tomorrow’s Chinese leaders to change their assessment and to exert economic pressures on US allies like Thailand or the Philippines to choose between Beijing and Washington.”

Territorial Claims on ASEAN’s Agenda

During the ARF meeting in July, ASEAN again challenged China’s territorial claim to the South China Sea. With the United States focused on freedom of navigation in the South China Seas, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton affirmed that “[l]egitimate claims to maritime space in the South China Sea should be derived solely from legitimate claims to land features.” In other words, China’s territorial claims were “invalid” because no Chinese live on these atolls. She offered to help create a binding code of conduct in the region. According to Noel Morada, an ASEAN scholar based in the University of Queensland, “The United States is trying to ‘draw the lines’ and make sure that China does not breach international norms that have governed the conduct of nations in the region.”

After more than a decade of diplomatic finesse, China’s response was swift and brusque. Chinese Foreign Minster Yang Jiechi accused ASEAN members of conniving with the United States to corner China. According to The Washington Post, the Chinese Minister shot back, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.” The gap between China’s rhetoric and its behavior, observes Morada, “undermines confidence in China’s ‘peaceful rise’, which effectively negates the gains of China’s charm offensive over the years, specifically in the context of territorial disputes in South China Sea.”

The message to ASEAN countries was clear: China is no longer just a rising power – but considers itself the regional power and will not tolerate any diplomatic offensive by its smaller neighbors. As a major claimant in the South China Sea dispute, the Philippines, took careful note.

While in New York this past September, President Aquino and President Obama held sideline discussions during the second U.S.-ASEAN leaders meeting on maintaining regional stability, which included the territorial disputes with China.

Later, during the U.S.-ASEAN meeting, President Aquino raised the Spratly issue. After expressing strong support for Secretary Clinton’s remarks in July that called for “collaborative diplomatic processes,” he voiced concern over China’s growing military maneuvering in the disputed areas. He felt this was best met by a united front should China decide to settle the issue through aggressive means. In response, the Chinese embassy in Philippines said it would not comment until the dust over the hostage crisis incident settled.

Prior to the meeting, ASEAN leaders had hoped to draft a joint statement to “oppose the use or threat of force by any claimant attempting to enforce disputed claims in the SCS [South China Sea].” The final statement merely “reaffirmed the importance of regional peace and stability” and invoked international law as a method of resolving disputes. At the recently Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meeting, China refused to alter its position on the issue – another indication of its new assertive face.

The Future of the Triangle

The Philippines’ growing anxiety over China is understandable. According to the Jamestown Foundation, “Over the past decade, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) has put into service a slew of modern submarines, destroyers, frigates, amphibious landing ships and patrol vessels, and this has considerably strengthened Beijing’s hand in the South China Sea.”

The probability of a serious confrontation between China and the United States remains low. They enjoy a great deal of economic interdependence. China is the world’s biggest exporter, and as long as it remains an export-dependent economy it needs the world’s biggest market. Moreover, as the world’s biggest holder of foreign exchange reserves, and the world’s top holder of U.S. debt, China holds considerable economic leverage. Cooperation between these super economies is central to any effort to revitalize the ailing global economy.

The United States also needs China’s cooperation on key international security issues, such as the Iranian nuclear program. Given its current military overstretch, the United States does not likely have the appetite for a major confrontation with a country as strong as China. To prevent, manage, and resolve conflicts in the region peacefully, the United States will most likely push for – in cooperation with ASEAN members as well as Taiwan and Japan – more binding and formal regional institutional mechanisms. The main aim would be to reduce the probability of East Asia turning into a flashpoint for great power confrontation.

At this point, the Philippines seems to be hedging its bets by retightening its ties with the United States. Should Beijing fail to decisively win back its hard-won benign image, Manila might ultimately decide to pull even closer to Washington.

FPIF contributor Richard Javad Heydarian is a foreign policy analyst based in Manila.