PH and China’s 21st century maritime silk road

Robert Joseph P. Medillo
'The vision of an Asian Way of cooperation and alliance is getting closer to reality, and the Philippines must be part of that vision and leave the tradition of nation-state as the world blurs its borders'

Are we getting it wrong? Was it an honest mistake to have overlooked President Xi Jinping’s “21st Century Maritime Silk Road Speech” in Indonesia? Was this even noted from the many promising foreign policy speeches of our president?

Upon reviewing press releases of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and President Benigno Aquino III’s speeches on South China Sea issue, much has been said about putting China in the bad light.

From China’s disrespect of international law to its violation of the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), the Philippines has moved farther and has found its refuge on scientific arguments condemning China’s massive land reclamation in the region. During the side event on maritime issues in the recently concluded 60th Asian African Conference Commemoration in Jakarta, the Philippine government said that China’s massive land reclamation threatens marine life in the disputed area and poses a great challenge in the realization of Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) set forth by the United Nations.

A press release from DFA published last April expressed the agency’s concern on the irreversible and widespread damage to the biodiversity and ecological balance of the South China Sea along with China’s violation of the UNCLOS, the Convention on Biological Diversity, and the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). (LOOK: Photos show China’s ‘massive’ reclamation in West PH Sea)

All these are but few of many public statements made by the Philippine government emphasizing the environmental impacts of China’s almost completed reclamation activities, not to mention scientific research-based presentations during the recently concluded 26th ASEAN Summit in Malaysia.

Threats or opportunities?

What the country fails to realize is the possibility of transforming threats into opportunities in light of an emerging China. Its suspicious calculation of China rendered damage to its relations with the latter, thus undermining the revisionist element in China’s foreign policy through its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road deemed beneficial for the Philippines and other Southeast Asian nations.

Despite efforts made by President Aquino to gather support from countries in Europe during his official visits, world leaders had only redirected their support to international norms of “rule of law” and “freedom of navigation,” thus refusing to side with any party involved in the arbitration process. Unlike Manila’s interpretation, such support for international norms did not really make a direct impact on China’s behavior. 

The possibility of winning the legal battle narrows. The perceived immateriality of legal process and outcomes prompted the Philippines to find another source to pressure China. In May 2014, President Aquino said China’s reclamation is a clear violation of the fifth provision of the DOC, specifying the clause on “self-restraint” and “handling differences on constructive manner.” As expected, the Chinese Foreign Ministry responded otherwise.

Language games are expected to continue in the coming months.

Both countries have utilized the DOC as weaponry to shape public opinion, and this is unlikely to help the Philippines in all aspect. Ironically, what both parties are missing is the uselessness of DOC at the moment where substantial revisions are yet to be conceived. Australian professor Carlyle A. Thayer, during his lecture at the Philippine Foreign Service Institute last May 12, warned that the war of words may only exacerbate the damage to China – relations among the members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) thus lessening the chance to negotiate the Code of Conduct in the near future.

Instead, Thayer suggested the Philippines to lead the ASEAN’s engagement with China to “fill in the blanks” in all provisions under the DOC. To pull China within ASEAN, member-states must first define what constitutes the region’s maritime domain and set the rules of behavior among themselves. What does “self restraint” mean? What are the determinants of threat escalations? Are communication lines open for the notification of joint military exercises? When does bilateral or multilateral cooperation apply?

For Professor Thayer, clarifying these questions would also pave the way to convince China to sit down with ASEAN countries to finally conclude the long-awaited COC.

The ‘silk road’ of the 21st century

But will China sacrifice the trust it built across regions at the expense of its possible militarization of the South China Sea?

What the Philippines is missing is the signal of what China really wants to convey. In his speech to the Indonesian Parliament, President Xi officially launched the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, considerably the core of China’s modern foreign policy highlighting the future of China’s relations with Southeast Asia and the world.

President Xi linked the historical, cultural, and economic affinity of China with its neighbors, which he aims to revive by strengthening the China-ASEAN Strategic Partnership. He assured ASEAN of China’s commitment to be a good neighbor, friend, and partner, sharing common security and prosperity through “thick and thin.”

Xi’s promises cannot be easily dismissed by China’s ongoing land reclamations in the South China Sea. The whole of Indonesia and the world is surely taking note of his government’s planned joint efforts strategies with ASEAN, a goal set for the constitution of the broader vision towards giving life to China and ASEAN’s “shared destiny.”

In addition, launching the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road in Indonesia is already symbolic in itself. Speaking before the Indonesian Parliament, the largest Southeast Asian country taking leadership within the ASEAN and an outsider in the South China Sea dispute, is indeed a good and valid indication of China’s genuine and strong commitment to cooperate with Southeast Asian countries on the same course as they did in the past. In one way or another, the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road Plan can already be considered as China’s way of slowly abandoning the Nine Dash Line claim.

In order to weigh in our narratives on China, one must look at it as paving the way for the realization of the 21st Maritime Silk Road which aims to facilitate modern shipping routes, information sharing facilities, and faster delivery of goods across Asia and the rest of the world. This is better than just frightening ourselves of an imagery of South China Sea as solely a Chinese military base – an idea China surely thought unbeneficial even for their greater interest.

The vision of an “Asian Way” of cooperation and alliance is getting closer to reality, and the Philippines must be part of that vision and leave the tradition of nation-state as the world blurs its borders. Confining itself within its preoccupations on international law, ASEAN unity, state sovereignty, and alliance with the US will only isolate us from the progress taking place in our region.

The Philippines must change course and re-engage China towards meaningful and more beneficial relations – it should consider a second look at reclamations not as structures of threat but formations of shared prosperity, and opportunity to harmonize its national interest with China and the rest of Southeast Asian nations. It will happen once again at the heart of the ancient maritime silk road of Asia – the South China Sea. –

Robert Joseph P. Medillo is a graduate student of Political Science at De La Salle University in Manila and is currently writing his master’s thesis on China-Southeast Asia relations. At the same time, he works for the Political Section of the Embassy of the Republic of Korea in the Philippines. The views in this essay belong to the author alone and do not represent the official stand of the embassy, its diplomatic officials, or its members.

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