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Manila treads a fine line of balanced diplomacy

Author: Xu LipingSilver Editor Source: Global Times PublishedTime :2021-04-27 10:37:33

On Friday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana flew to China's Zhongye Island in the South China Sea, which is also claimed by the Philippines. It is the first such visit by a Philippine defense secretary in nearly 20 years and has ignited tensions between China and the Philippines.


The visit was motivated by domestic and international factors. Domestically, Lorenzana's visit aimed at displaying the Philippine military presence on the island. In addition, opposition parties in the country have initiated a call for impeachment against the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte for his failure to defend the country's sovereign rights and territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea. In a sense, the visit is a response to the increasing nationalist sentiments in the Philippines.


Internationally, the Philippines will hold the 30th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit on Wednesday. As some countries take a hard line on China, the Philippines may face pressure from them. Moreover, US Vice President Mike Pence traveled to Jakarta, Indonesia on Thursday, and met with ASEAN Secretary General Le Luong Minh. Pence said that Trump would attend the US-ASEAN Summit and the East Asia Summit in the Philippines, which can also exert influences on Duterte's policy on the South China Sea.


Responding to the visit, China has lodged representations with the Philippine side. In a statement on Friday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang said "we hope that the Philippine side could cherish the hard-won sound momentum of development the bilateral relations are experiencing, faithfully follow the consensus reached between the two leadership, maintain general peace and stability in the South China Sea, and promote the sound and steady development of China-Philippine relations."


After Duterte has come to power, Sino-Philippine relations have returned to the right track and the two have reached consensus on some key issues. The Duterte administration is facing increasing pressure both domestically and externally, but it is not in their best interest to allow frictions on Zhongye Island to affect the bilateral relations. In the future, the Philippines and China ought to work through their differences under the framework of a Code of Conduct on the South China Sea, which is expected to be completed by June this year. What's more, the two countries should strengthen mutual trust and communication, cooling the tensions in the South China Sea.


Some Chinese observers are worried whether the Philippines will become the "pawn" of the US again in challenging China over the South China Sea issue under both domestic and external pressure. On April 16, the Philippine military revealed it would hold military exercises with the US in May, which is seen as a contradiction of Duterte's announcement for ending joint US and Philippine military drills. But, other factors should be considered before making this judgment. First, Duterte did cancel some other military exercises with the US. Second, this exercise aims at disaster relief and anti-terrorism, and is not directed against China.


In general, the number of US-Philippines military exercises in the future will be reduced. In addition, the Philippines will put more emphasis on its own benefits from military drills with the US, and not regard China as its imaginary enemy. For example, the US and the Philippines will strengthen cooperation in fields such as disaster relief and anti-terrorism.


It is suggested that the Philippines find a balance between the US and China. Since Benigno Aquino III took office, the Philippines took a friendly attitude toward the US but a hostile one toward China, causing serious damages to the relations and cooperation between China and the Philippines. It has been proven that this one-sided attitude ultimately harmed the interests of the Philippines. The Duterte administration should keep this in mind when managing its relations with China and the US, and maintain a balance between the two countries, which is in line with Philippine national interests. The future Sino-US-Philippines trilateral relationship should be a healthy and balanced one, which is beneficial to all three countries instead of being a zero-sum game.


The author is a senior fellow of the National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.


Manila treads a fine line of balanced diplomacy