Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s resignation from office effective March 7, 2016 can provide opportunities to repair the Philippines’ damaged bilateral ties with China.
Known for his excessive pro-Americanism leading to his strong attitude against China and for his hardline position on the South China Sea disputes, Del Rosario’s main foreign policy legacy was the sudden deterioration of the Philippines’ political ties with China. He initiated an international arbitration case against China and led the crusade for the enhancement of a Philippine-American security alliance that regrettably worsened Philippines-China political relations.
Under Del Rosario’s watch, Philippines-China political ties suffered the lowest moments in their diplomatic history, which was odd considering that in June 2005, the Philippines and China celebrated the “golden age” of their relations at the 30th anniversary of the establishment of their diplomatic ties. During the commemoration of the 40th anniversary of their ties in June 2015, the Philippines and China remained cold and distant with each other because of Del Rosario’s “strong and principled” stand on the South China Sea disputes.
With Del Rosario’s resignation from office, hopes are high in Beijing that his successor will improve ties with China considering that the Philippine government already acceded to the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Beijing also welcomes the Philippine participation in the China-initiated Maritime Silk Road Project that aims to promote robust economic ties between China and countries in maritime Southeast Asia.
But even without Del Rosario at the helm of the DFA, improving Philippine ties with China will be an extra challenge for his successor even beyond the current administration because of these two factors:
• The implementation of the Enhance Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). With the Supreme Court’s decision on the constitutionality of EDCA, the Philippine government is bound to implement it whoever is the Secretary of Foreign Affairs (SFA) or the President. This means that the enhanced rotational presence of American military troops to the Philippines will proceed. In fact, the Mutual Defense Board is already discussing the eight locations in the Philippines where the US can build its facilities to support American military activities in the country. There is no doubt that EDCA strengthens Philippine military alliance with the US. But the strengthening of this alliance is causing insecurities in China making it difficult for the Philippines to repair its damaged relations with Beijing.
• The result of the Philippines-China Arbitration. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) announced on October 29, 2015 that the Tribunal has jurisdiction to hear seven of the Philippine’s complaints against China, there is a view that the Philippines already achieved its legal victory on the first round of its case. But the Philippines has already suffered political defeat when China built artificial islands on the seven reefs in the South China Sea. It is expected that the PCA will announce the final ruling of the Tribunal in June 2016 or earlier. Whatever will be the result of the final ruling, China has already changed the facts on the ground in the South China Sea, particularly in areas covered by the International Arbitration. The result of the arbitration will not prevent China from carrying on with its construction activities on the geographic features it already occupies. This situation will find it very difficult for the Philippines to deal with China without a relaxation of its positions on the South China Sea.
After Del Rosario, the next SFA will be faced with the perennial dilemma of how to balance Philippine relations with China and the US.
While the US continues to be the linchpin of Philippine foreign and security policy, the next SFA should avoid the excessive pro-Americanism of Del Rosario. Instead, the next SFA should use the strengthening of its relations with the US as leverage in repairing Manila’s damaged ties with Beijing.
Like what other Southeast Asian countries are doing, the Philippines should not unnecessarily choose one between two competing powers: US or China.
Rather, the Philippines must learn how to hedge in order to get the best of both worlds to advance its national interest here and abroad.
The resignation of Del Rosario is an opportunity to pursue this kind of foreign policy. – Rappler.com
Dr. Rommel C. Banlaoi teaches at the Department of International Studies at Miriam College and currently the Vice President of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies (PACS). He is the Director of the Center for Intelligence and National Security Studies (CINSS) and Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research (PIPVTR).