Duterte fuels hope as PH, China mark 41 years of ties

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

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Duterte fuels hope as PH, China mark 41 years of ties
The Philippines and China mark the 41st anniversary of diplomatic relations, now at their lowest point in history because of the dispute over the West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – Exactly 41 years ago, then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai formally established diplomatic relations between the Philippines and China. 

The Philippines marked the 41st anniversary of this historic event on Thursday, June 9, at a time when the two countries remain embroiled in a dispute over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

This anniversary also comes as President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is preparing to replace outgoing President Benigno Aquino III by June 30.

Duterte is seen as friendlier to China than Aquino. The incoming president, for one, has openly said he is considering bilateral or one-on-one talks with China. 

China itself has praised Duterte’s incoming foreign secretary, Perfecto Yasay Jr, for saying he is open to bilateral talks. While observers fear that this could mean submission to China, others view Duterte’s approach as a way to ease tensions after Manila brought Beijing to court. (READ: Yasay to China: Join us in resolving sea row)

China, after all, detests third-party involvement and views bilateral talks as the “friendly” way to resolve disputes. 

Duterte, then, has fueled hope that the Philippines and China could mend the sea dispute that has brought their relationship to its lowest point in history.

One of those hopeful about the Duterte administration is Marcos’ information minister, former senator Francisco Tatad.

In an interview with Rappler on Wednesday, June 8, Tatad said he hopes Duterte can correct the mistakes of Aquino in handling the sea dispute.

To begin with, Tatad said Marcos’ initiative to begin diplomacy with China was “promising.”

MARCOS AND MAO. This photo taken on August 31, 2009, shows former Philippine first lady Imelda Marcos (left) walking past a giant portrait of her late husband, former president Ferdinand Marcos (right), shaking hands with Chinese leader Mao Zedong (center). File photo by Ted Aljibe/AFP

Tatad explained that in the context of the Cold War back then, “even the United States had not opened relations with the People’s Republic of China.” 

‘Most forward-looking initiative’

The US, in fact, “opened relations with China only in 1979,” while the Philippines under Marcos did so in 1975.

“It was a brave and innovative move on the part of President Marcos. And many were not prepared for this. But in the end, in hindsight, it was the most forward-looking initiative of any president in the region,” Tatad said on the sidelines of a forum on the West Philippine Sea dispute. 

He added: “It’s regrettable that so promising a start has come to this. There has been a lot of mishandling of foreign policy, because Marcos could not continue to exist beyond 1986. But you know, we probably missed a lot of opportunities.”

For Tatad, these missed opportunities include “the expanding economic cooperation in the world today.” He said: “All the pioneering activities of China as far as economic cooperation is concerned – we are not there. We should be there.” (READ: China urges trade with PH across ‘sea of peace’)

Tatad, however, noted that this “requires a coherent approach.” He said, “The South China Sea issue is just one issue. We have a really broad international perspective.”

For one, he said, the Philippines has to prepare to talk to China, whatever happens to the case filed by Manila against Beijing. “In the end, we will be the two parties talking to each other.”

Former Philippine ambassador Alberto Encomienda, for his part, praised one of Duterte’s first moves in dealing with China.

Asked what gives him hope under the Duterte administration, Encomienda cited the gesture of Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua “to be among the first to call on the president-elect.”

Duterte, in return, “did not treat it as a social nicety event.” He said the president-elect used it to help Filipino fishermen in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a portion of the West Philippine Sea effectively controlled by China after a standoff in April 2012. 

Referring to Duterte, Encomienda said: “He immediately asked China to show some goodwill by letting our fishermen fish in Scarborough Shoal. And within 24 hours, China responded positively. So this is the kind of direction I’m seeing.”

While this development “will not solve the issue completely,” Encomienda said it “is a good opening” that gives him “some confidence.”

‘Restore our ancient friendship’

Aside from experts like Tatad and Encomienda, one of the groups most hopeful under Duterte is the Filipino-Chinese community. 

The Filipino-Chinese comprise at least 1.5% of Philippine population. Many of them wield huge influence in business and other spheres. Two of the Philippines’ richest men, Henry Sy and Lucio Tan, in fact come from Chinese families. (READ: Aquino’s Chinese ancestry fuels anger in Beijing)

A member of the Filipino-Chinese community, businessman and columnist Wilson Lee Flores, said he sees much hope under Duterte. 

Flores comes from a 7th-generation Filipino-Chinese family. 

His ancestors first came to the Philippines in 1790, in search of a better life because of instability in China back then. Like many of the Filipino-Chinese, such as Aquino himself, Flores traces his roots to China’s Fujian province.

Flores said: “I hope we could restore our ancient, long-standing friendship between the Philippines and China, which has been for more than 1,000 years.”

“We are one of the oldest friends of China in Asia. China is one of our oldest friends. Even before the Spaniards came here, we were good friends with China already, and we have never had a history of war. Never,” Flores said.

The columnist explained that the other foreigners that the Philippines has encountered in history – the Spanish, the Americans, and the Japanese – “conquered” the country. 

Flores said: “But what’s unique about China-Philippine relations, Philippines was never colonized by China, there never was war, when in fact the Chinese have been coming to the Philippines for more than a thousand years.”

“So hopefully under the new administration, hopefully we can go back to normal,” Flores said. “Hopefully we can normalize the ancient friendship that has always been there.” – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email pat.esmaquel@rappler.com