The famous kowtowing scene from The Last Emperor. Then, as now, the Chinese government knows how to put on a spectacle calculated to impress.
ON Monday, the first ANC Breakfast segment of The Explainer aired, and we discussed the President’s visit to Beijing. Aside from a state visit being the highest form of diplomatic visit, the President’s trip to the Chinese capital represents his real debut in the big league. Squeezed in ahead of a previously-scheduled trip to Tokyo, it represents an unambiguous signal of the President’s foreign policy direction. Since much of what results from a state visit has been previously agreed on, both sides can be expected to do their best to avoid any surprises that might get in the way of what the visit is supposed to project: a relationship very different than the one that hogged the headlines over the past six years.
Of course, everyone is abuzz about what, if anything, will be announced concerning the West Philippine Sea and how China and the Philippines will reconcile their mutual desire for –in the words of Chinese ambassador Zhao Jianhua—a relationship in which “The clouds are fading away,” and where “The sun is rising over the horizon and will shine beautifully on the new chapter of bilateral relations.” Such is the purple language of diplomacy.
Recently-released data from SWS on how Filipinos view China, Japan, Australia and the USA shows that while the President is keen on China, the country doesn’t necessarily share his optimism or trust. The President’s gamble is that he will bring home plenty of goodies to show his policy is paying dividends, not later, but now. Manila sows Asean unease, an editorial in the Bangkok Post, also suggests discomfort on the part of our neighbors. What the goodies are, while important for domestic opinion, will matter less to these observers than if anything is said about the Arbitration Tribunal ruling –and what, in turn, happens when the President goes on to visit Tokyo.
Even as the President navigates between these two major capitals and their competing interests, and even as he projects his own brand of diplomacy in contrast to his predecessor’s, it would be well to remember that a far longer story overshadows the whole West Philippine sea issue and the Philippines’ priorities. While there has been a lot of chatter about what an “independent” foreign policy might be, it seems to me more productive to examine the origins of our current policies to see how they have evolved.
There are actually two stories here. They represent two different approaches to problems concerning Philippine claims to resources and territory, and how to go about achieving the national interest.
My interest in this was sparked by research I did for a timeline on the history of our claim to Sabah (North Borneo): see North Borneo (Sabah): An annotated timeline 1640s-present from 2013. In it, I saw two different approaches to the same problem, namely, the Philippine claim to the former domains in Borneo of the Sultan of Sulu. On the one hand, there was a strategy adopted primarily by Elpidio Quirino, who, as our pioneer Secretary of Foreign Affairs (from 1946-48), laid out the Sabah claim and pursued it along diplomatic lines that remained fairly consistent up to the Macapagal administration. Essentially this strategy depended on conflicting claims being resolved by institutions such as the United Nations. This strategy reached a dead end when the United Nations declared that a plebiscite in Sabah had decided that it would form part of Malaysia. Then there came a different approach, that of Ferdinand Marcos. His policy was a throwback: basically, resolution through annexation that would be made possible by an invasion. The result was a disaster: it alienated the Moros, and antagonized Malaysia into supporting Moro secession. We continue to live with the effects of this disaster to this day.
A couple of years later, when I started taking a look at the Philippine claims in the Spratleys, it became clear to me that a similar situation existed when it came to our claims there. Again, two stories. The first is a claim first identified in the mid-1930s, and put forward in the time of the Commonwealth by, guess who? Elpidio Quirino. This time, as Secretary of the Interior in 1937, when he put forward a Philippine claim. When Quirino became Secretary of Foreign Affairs and then President, he reasserted this claim, this time taking advantage of the fact that the area, formerly controlled by Japan, was now in limbo. Again, his approach, continued by his successors until Marcos, was to pursue the claim according to emerging international law, and focused on international treaties and organizations.
Then came Marcos and again, a throwback policy was instituted instead –colonization, based on the swashbuckling adventurism of a retired Philippine navy man, and ending in a presidential decree annexing and establishing the Kalayaan Islands Group as Philippine territory.
As in the days of Western imperialism, at the heart of competition –and conflict—is to achieve economic gains. Perhaps the most intriguing backgrounder along this freamework is China’s ‘Historic Rights’ in the South China Sea: Made in America? by Bill Hayton. What may be surprising to some, however, is the zest with which even the great dictator himself was bedazzled by imperial fantasies. The result is a hybrid situation, half responsible member of the family of nations and upholder of international law and obligations (our older diplomatic tradition), and the more hazy, semi-mystical, pseudo-imperialist projections of the Marcos era. We are stuck with uneasily having to reconcile both in practically every aspect of life as a sovereign nation: every constitution since 1935 has pledged adherence to international laws and treaties; every constitution since 1973 has required the assertion of “historical” claims, which ties the hands of all presidents. Including the present chief executive.
The preliminary timeline below shows the chronological order of events regarding the claims on the Kalayaan Group of Islands (KIG) also known as the Spratly Islands. I am grateful to Kristoffer Pasion for his assistance. Rough as it is, I think it illustrates clearly the two stories I have put forward.
Of course the latest big event was the ruling. See: Philippines v. China: Arbitration Outcomes in The Asia Maritime Initiative website is an invaluable resource. See also the following articles from their site:
Calm and Storm: The South China Sea after the Second World War (its 1945-46 dates are not included in the timeline above).
Manila’s Pyrrhic Victory: ASEAN in disarray over the South China Sea.
The EU, the South China Sea, and China’s Successful Wedge Strategy.
Who Is Taking Sides After the South China Sea Ruling?
Other useful readings are:
What the Philippines and Australia can learn from Vietnam about living with China.
The line on a 70-year-old map that threatens to set off a war in East Asia in Quartz.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.