Photo Source: CGTN

Economics and security issues are on the agenda of President Rodrigo Duterte's fifth visit to Beijing. The number of visits he has made thus far is indicative of the importance he attaches to the burgeoning bilateral relations.

China has become the Philippines' largest trade partner since 2016, its largest investor last year and is expected to be the country’s largest inbound tourism market this year.

Photo Source: Aljazeera 

A Hongkonger waving a British flag; students, professionals, young and old marching on the streets; hostilities breaking out at the legislative council building; harassment and riots between law enforcement officers and civilians; and canceled international flights. These, in a nutshell, are the images that tell the story of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China in recent weeks. What is happening in Hong Kong? Why have peaceful protests suddenly gone violent? Where will they lead? What is the future of Hong Kong?

“There is no ifs and buts. It is ours. But we have been acting along that legal truth and line. But we have to temper it with the times and the realities that we face today.” This statement in President Rodrigo Duterte’s fourth State of the Nation Address (SONA) last month reflects his policy toward Philippine claims in the South China Sea. That position has remained fairly consistent since coming to power in 2016. As he sets out to visit Beijing for the fifth time this month, maritime issues will once again be high on the agenda.

Conflict avoidance and protection of the country’s waters and marine resources constitute Duterte’s fundamental priorities in the South China Sea and he sees peaceful dialogue as the best way to achieve them. He has argued, “More and better results can be reached in the privacy of a conference room than in a squabble in public.” But high public mistrust of China and perceived weak handling of sea incidents have raised demands for transparency or oversight in the conduct of such talks. This should, however, be balanced by a respect for the very real sensitivities attached to diplomatic negotiations, especially over a decades-old territorial and maritime row.

Photo Source: South China Morning Post

A recent strategic dialogue between security sector experts and practitioners in the Philippines and Australia discussed prospects and sobering realities for cooperation and conflict-prevention amid great power rivalry. Australian Ambassador to the Philippines Steven Robinson’s keynote speech neatly summed up stark facts facing the Indo-Pacific: (a) geopolitical adjustments stemming from China’s rise, and (b) US policy mood that has shifted from engagement to strategic competition. 

The problem however lies in how we make sense of these realities. It has become popular for smaller powers to pursue “strategic autonomy”: non-aligned, cordial relations with both US and China pursued at the national level. However, I argue that strategic autonomy conceived as such is insufficient and leads to international bystanderism that makes the region susceptible to fallout from great power rivalry. Strategic autonomy may be better complemented by proactive brokerage by middle powers, clear articulation of common interests, and a degree of international coordination of national balancing strategies where possible. Discussions from the 2019 Philippines-Australia Dialogue are instructive in this regard.