Commentaries

So Near and Yet So Far: 40 Years of Philippines-China Relations

imageThe year 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China. On June 9, 1975, Ferdinand Marcos, accompanied by his family members and Cabinet officials, together with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, signed the Joint Communique establishing diplomatic ties. This important occasion was held at the hospital where Premier Zhou, seriously ill prior to his death just seven months later, was staying.

imageThe year 2015 marks the 40th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China. On June 9, 1975, Ferdinand Marcos, accompanied by his family members and Cabinet officials, together with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai, signed the Joint Communique establishing diplomatic ties. This important occasion was held at the hospital where Premier Zhou, seriously ill prior to his death just seven months later, was staying.

We commemorated the event this year with little fanfare and celebration, in the face of the current crisis in diplomatic relations related to territorial and maritime disputes in the West Philippine Sea.  But looking back at the longer course of the relationship in fact serves a good purpose.

It reminds us that through most of the four decades, not only were relations normal and cordial, but that socio-cultural links with China were among the strongest the Philippines has ever had with a foreign country, with a steady stream of exchanges involving artists, students, intellectuals, athletes, performing groups, and so on.  In the twenty year period from 1979 until 1999 alone, over 200 science and technology cooperation projects were implemented, including hydro power, rice production, aquaculture, flood control, and traditional Chinese medicine. Many Filipinos began to see China as a development model, with its biggest miracle not so much the double-digit growth rates as its success in lifting millions of its people out of poverty within a very short period.

The business community in the Philippines, including Chinese-Filipinos, had also helped nourish and sustain relations. San Miguel Corp., operating through Hong Kong, was among the earliest foreign entrants into the China market. China’s initial stages of reform and opening up since 1978 would likely have failed were it not for the contributions of Southeast Asia’s overseas Chinese who invested in their hometowns in the coastal regions of China, specifically in Fujian province in the case of most Chinese-Filipinos. Now that China has become much more affluent and in possession of huge foreign exchange reserves, it seems somewhat ironic that the Philippines and Southeast Asian countries, with the exception of ASEAN’s smaller member states, continue to invest more in China rather than the other way around.

Looking back, we are reminded that although the volumes and values of trade with China through the years appeared tepid in comparison with those of our fast-growing neighbors, trade did grow 560 times over the four decades, from US$72 million in 1975 to US$40.5 billion in 2014. Even now, China continues to be a favorite tourist destination among Filipinos, and Boracay was voted ‘honeymoon destination of the year’ by China’s travel industry experts in 2011. Local government executives of both sides hobnobbed through sister-city and sister-province arrangements. Many Filipinos rooted for and celebrated China’s ‘coming out party’ during its hosting of the 2008 Olympics.

The maritime and territorial disputes have been a longstanding issue predating diplomatic ties and involving several countries of the region, but for the Philippines it was pushed to the backburner during the first two decades of China relations. Even after the start of maritime disagreements over Mischief Reef in 1995, the two sides sought to address their differences by committing to a policy of self-restraint and exploring the possibility of cooperation on fisheries, marine environment protection, and military confidence building measures, albeit unsuccessfully. It was because of the territorial disputes, not in spite of it, that high-level exchanges rose to new heights in the years that followed, including linkages among security and defense officials that to date have resulted in Filipino military officers participating in training programs in Beijing’s military schools, and both sides hosting defense and miltary attaches in each other’s capitals.

Whether for the right reasons or the wrong ones, Manila had likewise pragmatically entertained the possibility of oil and gas cooperation in disputed areas when it agreed to conduct joint seismic surveys with Beijing in 2004 and then with Hanoi in 2005.  Given the lack of popular support for this initiative among Filipino skeptics, it was doomed to fail, and fail it did when the Philippines allowed the agreement to lapse in 2008. Bilateral ties with China suffered further major blows in the wake of corruption scandals implicating would-be Chinese partners in the NBN-ZTE and the Northrail deals.

An unfortunate confluence of developments then began to take a toll on bilateral relations. Leadership changes and a tendency to give in to popular nationalism paved the way for significant foreign policy adjustments by both sides towards the other, highlighting the maritime disputes. A two-month long standoff in 2012 between vessels of the two sides on Panatag/Bajo de Masinloc was just one salvo in a string of escalatory actions and reactions.  

At the regional level, a major geopolitical shift resulting from the rapid rise in China’s military capability and foreign policy assertiveness impacted on East Asia and the Pacific, introducing new uncertainties that pushed states to engage in hedging or soft-balancing strategies of different degrees. In the case of the Philippines, hedging against China also took the form of a modest defense modernization program, reinvigorating the defense alliance with the United States and seeking out new security partners, even as Manila sought peaceful approaches to obtain relief on the maritime disputes by resorting to international law conventions and ASEAN multilateral diplomacy.

From their shared experiences of the previous forty years, both China and the Philippines have seen how the other can be so near and yet so far.  The last three years of sharpening tensions, or even the last twenty since the maritime disputes took on some prominence following the Mischief Reef incident, have to be seen against the backdrop of nearly forty years of active exchanges, during which the governments and peoples of both sides had worked hard to build mutually beneficial and good-neighborly ties at various levels. Furthermore, let us look back a thousand years since the first traders from Ma’i and the early missions from Butuan traveled to China across the same seas that are now the subject of so much disagreement. During these thousand years, the peoples of the two countries learned to live side by side, fundamentally devoid of any significant violence or war.

The Philippines-China story continues to unfold. One cannot predict how the next forty years of relations will go. But in the state-to-state as well as people-to-people relations, one can hope for truth, reason, justness and peace to prevail.

Aileen S.P. Baviera

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