Myanmar won't back PH stance in sea row vs China, says Heydarian
MANILA - Unlike recent meetings, this year's ASEAN Summit in Myanmar is witnessing a shift in countries' bilateral relations with China.
When President Benigno Aquino III arrived in Myanmar for this week's ASEAN meetings with the territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas high on the agenda, he was stepping into an environment that had changed dramatically in just a few months.
Unlike in the first half of the year when tensions between China, Vietnam and Japan were running high, the three rivals have now sought to smooth their rocky bilateral ties.
Chinese President Xi Jinping has also embarked on a charm offensive with other ASEAN members, including Indonesia and Malaysia.
International political analyst Richard Heydarian said these developments are worrying because they leave out the Philippines from the huge benefits of being a friend of China.
"China openly says: 'If you play your cards well, if you do not provoke me, you can benefit a lot,'" Heydarian said in an interview on ANC's "Headstart" on Thursday.
"I think the diplomatic tide has been shifting in the last few months, around May to June to July... On one hand, our friends in Vietnam have been trying to reach out to China because they really fear that there could be an escalation towards an all-out military conflict. So what happened was they sent special envoys."
"In many ways, Xi Jinping is seen as the most charismatic and influential leader since Deng Xiaoping. He is seen as a paramount leader. Some of us would even call him the new emperor of China. He has consolidated power at home, he's extremely influential, but he has also taken a very hard line position on the territorial disputes," he added.
Indeed, Heydarian is not optimistic that a definitive agreement will result from the ASEAN Summit in Myanmar that would help resolve territorial disputes with China.
That's even as Philippine Communications Secretary Sonny Coloma, who was with Aquino during a closed-door plenary session, said ASEAN leaders agreed to craft a code of conduct to avoid untoward maritime incidents.
"The general sense expressed by the heads of state was one of support... They acknowledge that peaceful resolution is essential especially in terms of pushing the agenda of regional economic integration, and that peace and stability in the region is an important precondition for attaining a greater measure of economic progress," said Coloma.
Heydarian said while ASEAN host Myanmar has become more open to discussing such issues during the two-day meeting of Southeast Asian leaders along with the United States, Japan and Australia, the dispute takes the backseat to the main agenda of the summit, which is trade.
"I have not seen a concerted effort by Myanmar to take up the cudgels for us. ASEAN is suffering from an agenda overload."
"So I'm very sure that the negotiations on the ASEAN common market is gonna take a lot of energy. So I'm not very optimistic we can get something concrete out of this so far... So it is unfortunate that we do not have a very vibrant bilateral channel," he said.
With the Philippines now the only country in the region not actively engaging China, Heydarian recommends that the Philippines expand its strategy moving forward, find a special envoy to mediate between Manila and Beijing, and set up a hotline as part of a concerted effort to reach out to China for the deescalation of tensions.
The political science professor said the current legalistic approach of the Philippines may not be effective.
"The fact of the matter is that actually China was threatening us with huge economic sanctions before we filed the memorial... It's not a slam dunk case. In fact, the arbitration body in the Hague does not have the mandate to ascertain sovereignty issues," Heydarian said.
He said the Philippines must adjust as China changes tack. Otherwise, it may be left out of a new world order with China at the center.
"Before the meeting in APEC, President Aquino was asked: 'Do you have any plans to meet with Xi Jinping?' And he was: 'I'm not very sure about it.' And then boom, you see Abe meeting him and then Vietnam meeting him," he said.
"Suddenly now I think Aquino is trying to talk to his counterpart after some tree-planting event, but this was not a formal bilateral agreement. So clearly China is making us feel that we are isolated on this issue, and I don't think we are getting much love from our friends in the ASEAN," he added. - ANC