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Japan and China are two of the Philippines’ most important neighbors and economic partners. Japan is the country’s biggest trade partner, investor and donor and the only country with which Philippines has an existing bilateral free trade agreement. Being both archipelagoes with long coastlines and with maritime and territorial disputes with neighbors, notably with China, Philippines and Japan share some common maritime security interests and challenges. China, on the other hand, is the country’s second biggest trade partner and a major potential investor in Philippine infrastructure, industry and agriculture. Philippines and China share overlapping claims in the contested South China Sea (SCS) making it imperative to develop appropriate dispute management mechanisms to prevent this issue from undermining bilateral ties, as well as contributing to regional instability. No wonder that outside ASEAN capitals, Beijing and Tokyo figured prominently in the first foreign state visits of President Rodrigo Duterte. 

Because of the Philippines’ strategic location, geopolitical importance and burgeoning economy, it is understandable for external powers to try to obtain the Philippines’ favor.  The recent state visit of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Manila with a stop in Duterte’s hometown of Davao, for instance, demonstrates Japan’s determination to keep its longstanding influence in the country, amidst warming Philippines-China relations and uncertainties in Philippines-US ties. However, instead of choosing between rivals Japan and China, the Philippines should realize that maintaining good relations with these two powers is important for the country’s economy and security. Pursuit of national interests through an independent foreign policy requires staying away from great power competition to avoid entanglement. It also requires that the Philippines avoids choosing one over the other for fear of foregoing the benefits of engaging both.

The new Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has damaged diplomatic relations for his country with his bold anti-US attitude and warming of Sino-Philippine relations. The Philippine attitude towards China has vacillated heavily. Since the founding of the Third Republic of the Philippines in 1946, there have been six distinct periods in Sino-Philippine relations: 

The first period lasted from 1946 to 1960 when the Philippines adhered to anti-Communist party and anti-China policies, and thus was opposed to Chinese revolutionary rhetoric.

The second period began in late 1960 and ended in 1986 when the Marcos dictatorship fell. Under the Nixon Doctrine, Sino-Philippine relations began to thaw. The Chinese leadership took measures (such as lowering fuel prices to the Philippines in 1975) to promote economic activities and speed up the establishment of diplomatic relations. This was a steady, long-term process. 

Image by King Rodriguez/PPD from Inquirer.net (image may be accessed through http://bit.ly/2hX5oAO)

Six months have already gone by of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration. The Southeast Asian region is left with questions as to what the future might hold when the Philippines takes the rotating chairmanship of ASEAN in 2017. Since President Duterte took office on June 30 of this year, he has issued, and his aides have retracted, several foreign policy pronouncements concerning the big powers in the region – China and the United States  -- that could impact on ASEAN.

His predecessor President Benigno Aquino III’s foreign policy approach was outspoken in its criticism of China, and the Aquino administration won a case against China that it filed with an international arbitral panel to defend Philippine entitlements in the South China Sea. President Duterte, on the other hand, appeared to take a whole U-turn by re-establishing amicable ties with China and distancing itself from the US, in order to pursue an “independent foreign policy”.  It was during his visit to Beijing last October 18 to 21, that he announced the Philippines’ “separation” from the US in both military and economic terms. He also claimed that ‘US has lost’ and that the Philippines is now “realigning” with China.

Synopsis

The likely announcement by Philippine President Duterte of the Scarborough Shoal as an environmental marine sanctuary and off limits to fishermen could prove to be the first incremental step towards defusing the South China Sea disputes and in the process endow considerable strategic advantages to Beijing.