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'Sum total'.

President Duterte has started a three-day state visit to China, a much-anticipated journey that he himself described, optimistically, as a 'key turning point in both our histories.' The truth is: If he completes the pivot to China within his term, and in the process ends the security alliance with the United States and poses crucial questions about the long-term viability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then the visit will in fact mark the start of a decisive turn-for the Philippines. For China, not as much. It will simply accentuate the power imbalance in the two country's relations.

The President and his men do not see it that way, of course. Last Sunday, before departing for Brunei, the first stop in this week's itinerary, the President painted the big picture: 'I will look forward to renewing the ties of friendship between the Philippines and China and to reaffirm the commitment to work closer to achieve shared goals for our countries and peoples. As we mark this year of the 41st anniversary of the establishment of the relations between China and the Philippines, we will look at the sum total of our relationships.'

That phrase is the administration's new mantra: Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay, for instance, repeated the phrase the day after the President's pre-departure speech, during a news conference in Brunei, when he argued that the country's dispute with China over competing claims in the South China Sea was not the 'sum total' of Philippine-Chinese relations. We can expect repeated and frequent use of this phrase, because it is a good summary of the administration's approach.

The background of the 'sum total' approach can perhaps best be understood in terms Communications Secretary Martin Andanar used in his column the other day: 'Manila, during the previous administration, pursued a policy that reduced a flourishing and multifaceted relationship into a mere squabble over which entity owned this reef or that. Issues of trade and commerce were thrown into the dustbin, and everything was reduced into a game of asserting ownership.'

This is, at best, a hypothesis that needs testing; at worst, a flat-out misreading of both the bilateral relations (which continued, despite obvious strain) and of the territorial and maritime claims of the Philippines. Whether hypothesis or misreading, it seeks, rather remarkably, to place the blame for the bullying that took place in the last few years on the bullied rather than the bully.

Yasay, in Brunei, also blamed the Aquino administration: 'Right now is not the time to discuss substantively resolving this issue. We still have to build on the lost trust and confidence eroded during the past administration. We should not miss out on opportunities for assistance and loans and pursue these things to the mutual benefit of both countries without eroding our respective claims over the South China Sea.'

Why assistance and loans from China are to be welcomed, but those from the United States should be scorned, the foreign secretary did not say. Why assistance and loans from China form part of an independent foreign policy, but not those from the United States, he also did not explain.

But it is clear that the Duterte administration has accepted Beijing's position that the previous administration was the cause of the strain in our bilateral relations. With that as given, there is no dispute that this administration's 'sum total' approach seeks to put the spotlight on other aspects of Philippine-Chinese relations, including trade and investments. The change in focus has moved the Chinese state news agency Xinhua to describe Duterte's state visit as a strong sign that the 'bad blood between Beijing and Manila has finally begun to give place to good faith.'

Bad blood then, good faith now: In China's Beijing-centric big picture, this is the true sum total of Chinese-Philippine relations.
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Publication:Philippines Daily Inquirer (Makati City, Philippines)
Geographic Code:0PACI
Date:Oct 19, 2016
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