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article imageOp-Ed: Will the Philippines warm up to China?

By Kenneth Szabo     Mar 4, 2016 in World
Consolidating efforts to modernize the Philippines military, which began with the acquisition of two former U.S. Coast Guard cutters and a contract for the delivery of 12 FA-50 fighter from South Korea, a new deal has also now been struck with Japan.
The agreement will provide a boost to defense cooperation between the two East Asian nations and includes a provision aiming to implement the supply of military hardware and military tech from Japan to the Philippines. Although most details of this exchange have yet to be decided, a number of training aircraft for surveillance purposes are likely already on the Philippine's shopping list, marking a notable turn in the otherwise meek nation's approach towards military operations. With significant controversy in the South China Seas over Beijing's claims on disputed maritime territories, and Japan already firmly in the anti-Chinese camp, Manila has sent a clear message to the northern giant.
However, with presidential elections coming up, will the Philippines somersault on its Sino-skeptic foreign policy?
China's bullish flag-planting across the seas of East and Southeast Asia has been a focus of significant international attention over the past few years, and it seems to have alienated many nations. Japan has been a longtime diplomatic foe in its rejection of Chinese maritime claims; the people of Vietnam have been highly vocal in their displeasure; even the usually placid Indonesia has felt it necessary to force the issue. However, while protests and acts of outrage are something Beijing usually takes in its stride, the Philippines’ litigious approach quickly made Manila the biggest thorn in China’s side.
Indeed, Manila's government has even been accused of “political provocation,” with news that a long-sought ruling was imminent by an arbitration court in The Hague, which is expected to decide against Chinese claims in Philippine waters. Of course, China has refused to recognize the case, and has been quite forthright in refusing to comply with any rulings, but let's make no bones about it — this is a victory, albeit a small one, for the Philippines and Beijing has lost face over the matter.
Now that the Philippines has partnered with Japan, China's age old enemy and provocateur, Beijing must truly be incensed by the perceived interference in its affairs of a nation that beforehand barely even registered on its political radar. Governments in both Manila and Tokyo were quick to make the point, following the initial revelation of their new deal, that the new defense pact has not been initiated against any particular nation in mind. Further unwanted attention has been drawn to a part of the world that the Chinese government was hoping might once again pass under the international community's radar. Especially as the building of artificial islands in disputed waters and the redeployment of significant military resources to the area have all gone more or less unchallenged. In recent talks between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Li, Kerry accused China of militarizing the local waterways and Li, predictably, responded by saying it was only an act of self-defense. Yet, from Beijing's perspective, there is an element of truth to this, with Japan and the Philippines' pact being only one of many.
A significant point of contention, both between Beijing and Manila, but also between different political elements within the Philippines itself, is the 2014 U.S.-Philippines Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA). The EDCA essentially gives the U.S. an even more significant presence in Philippine's territories. The presence of the U.S. military is a matter of much debate in the Philippines, with issues of sovereignty at the fore of the national consciousness — so much so that the government was entirely split by the EDCA proposal. The “for” camp is keen to bolster the nation's position of security in light of the threat from China, and the “against” camp wants to rebuild bridges with China and reclaim the nation's sovereignty from the US. Indeed, although the “for” camp eventually won the battle, the divisions within the Philippines, at both a local and governmental level, are evident. And with an upcoming election that will see current President Benigno Aquino replaced, the EDCA may have a say in the nation's future direction. Certainly, it has already shaped much of the rhetoric of the main candidates for the presidential race — a desire to improve bilateral relations with China evident throughout most discussions over potential policy.
So, does all this mean that we are seeing the Philippines reverting to the pro-Chinese fold? In Southeast Asia's current political climate, where the likes of Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand are involved in their own battles between liberalizing forces and traditionalist power bases, such a political u-turn would not be entirely untypical. This would be an ideal opportunity for Beijing, were it to make certain concessions, to rid itself both of one of its most dogged critics and undermine U.S. ambitions in the region at the same time. However, as much as the continued presence of the U.S. on the Philippines' shores is something of a sore point, the majority of the Filipino population has little love for a China that so ruthlessly exploits any and all opportunities in the South China Seas. Beijing's concessions would have to be great indeed to win round a nation that has been fairly committed to taking on any foreign ambitions in its waters. Nevertheless, with such great gains to be had, a change in Chinese foreign policy may yet be forthcoming. The ball is truly in Beijing's court.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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