The Philippines will play host to the 2015 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit this week, taking on the torch passed by China, which hosted the key regional event last year. The packaging and messaging of APEC’s theme and its priorities by both China in 2014 and the Philippines this 2015 suggest an attempt to reflect their domestic agendas and leverage on their relative strengths as they advance regional goals.

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.

There was much expectation that recent developments in the South China Sea (SCS) and their potential implications for regional security in the Asia-Pacific would be among the key issues to be discussed during the recently concluded state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US. However, a review of the post-visit official statements and releases from the two sides revealed no references to the said subject. It became apparent that there was a deliberate effort by both sides to downplay the importance of the issue. In stark contrast, there was much discussion of economic relations and climate change and a joint presidential statement on the latter was even issued. While there was mention of maritime concerns, it was in the context of a larger strategic cooperation for ocean and polar research and conservation, and in relation to military and coast guard confidence building measures.  Given the expectations from America's mutual defense allies in the Asia-Pacific region, including the Philippines, that President Obama will call China out over its recent activities in the SCS, the non-mention of the SCS in official post-visit issuances may send unwelcome signals to other claimant states and security allies, and impact adversely on the US’ image as a security partner for the region.